Who are you?

October 30, 2017 | Author: Anonymous | Category: N/A
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two with their courting chase. The ending was .. Elise snapped, finally within hearing range short when his gaze focus&n...

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Cowboys and Highlanders My Highland Love Highland Lords Series Book OneTarah Scott To Bed a Montana Man KyAnn Waters Montana Men Book One My Highland Lord Highland Lords Series Book Two Tarah Scott

To Wed a Wanton Woman KyAnn Waters Montana Men Book Two

© Copyright 2015 Broken Arm Publishing

This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any

form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author. Cover Art: Rebecca Poole Dreams2Media Graphics: Hot Damn Designs

CONTENTS My Highland Love To Bed A Montana Man My Highland Lord To Wed a Wonton Woman

MY HIGHLAND LOVE Highland Lords Series Book One Tarah Scott

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar

condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

COPYRIGHT © 2012 by Tarah Scott http://www.tarahscott.com/

Reviews The chemistry between these two characters will leave you breathless! This is one book I will defiantly read over and over! Starry Night Book Reviews The story is not only well written, but flows at just the perfect pace.One of the most important things in this genre

is chemistry between the characters. My Highland Love's Marcus and Elise will set fire to the pages, or your e-reader screen! It's romantic and sensual with a good dose of suspense and action added in. Set in the beautiful Scottish Highlands this tale of love and second chances truly shines among other Highland novels. If you're looking for the next greatest Highland tale, pick this one up!

Kristina Haeker's Reviews My Highland Love by Tarah Scott is a great story. I like the fact that Elise is not some wayward, whiny virgin, she is a woman with a past, a woman with her tragedies that make her evolve into the lass that Marcus comes to love. I adore Marcus being an older man with an 18 year old son and loads of responsibilities. Book

Obsessed Chicks The erotic chemistry between Marcus and Elise is sizzling hot and definitely will raise your heart level up a notch or two with their courting chase. The ending was brilliant; my emotions were running wild with sadness one moment and gasping but ending with a great big smile on my face for the happy ever after. Excellent Read. Queentutt



Dedication This book is dedicated to my two very good friends and critique partners, Kimberly Comeau and Evan Trevane. You guys read this book above and beyond the call of duty. Thank you.

Chapter One America Winter 1825 "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Or so her eulogy would begin. The heavy gold wedding band clinked loudly in the silence as he grasped the crystal tumbler sitting on the

desk before him. He raised the glass in salutation and whispered into the darkness, "To the dead, may they rot in their watery graves." He finished the whiskey in one swallow. And what of that which had been hers? He smiled. The law would see that her wealth remained where it should—with him. A finality settled about the room. Soon, life would begin.

* * * * Solway Firth, ScottishEnglish border Elise jumped at the sound of approaching footsteps and sloshed tea from the cup at her lips. The ship's stateroom door opened and her grip tightened around the delicate cup handle. Her husband ducked to miss the top of the doorway as he

entered. He stopped, his gaze fixing on the medical journal that lay open on the secretary beside her. A corner of his mouth curved upward with a derisive twist and his eyes met hers. With deliberate disinterest, Elise slipped the paper she'd been making notes on between the pages of the journal and took the forestalled sip of afternoon tea. She grimaced. The tea

had grown cold in the two hours it had sat untouched. She placed the cup on the saucer, then turned a page in the book. As Robert clicked the door shut behind him, the ship's stern lifted with another wave. She gripped the desk when the stern dropped into the swell's trough. Thunder, the first on the month-long voyage, rumbled. She released the desk. This storm had grown into more than a

mere squall. Robert stepped to her side. "What are you doing?" "Nothi—" He snatched the paper from the book. "Robert!" She would have leapt to her feet, but her legs were shakier than her hands. He scanned the paper, then looked at her. "You refuse to let the matter lie." "You don't care that the doctors couldn't identify what killed your daughter?"

"She is dead. What difference can it possibly make?" Her pulse jumped. None for you. Because you murdered her. He tossed the paper aside. "This has gone far enough." Elise lifted her gaze to his face. She once thought those blue eyes so sensual. "I couldn't agree more." "Indeed?"

The ship heaved. "I will give you a divorce," she said. "Divorce?" A hard gleam entered his eyes. "I mean to be a widower." She caught sight of the bulge in his waistband. Her pulse quickened. Why hadn't she noticed the pistol when he entered? Elise shook her head. "You can't possibly hope to succeed. Steven will—"

"Your illustrious brother is in the bowels of the ship, overseeing the handling of the two crewmen accused of theft." Her blood chilled. When her father was alive, he made sure the men employed by Landen Shipping were of good reputation. Much had changed since his death. "One of the men is wanted for murder," Robert said.

"Murder?" she blurted. "Why would a stranger murder me?" Robert lifted a lock of her dark hair. "Not a stranger. A spurned lover." He dropped the hair, then gripped the arms of her chair and leaned forward. "Once the board members of Landen Shipping identify your body as Elisabeth Kingston, the stipulation in your father's will shall be satisfied and

your stock is mine." The roar of blood pounded through her ears. If he killed her now, he would never pay for murdering their daughter. And she intended that he pay. Elise lunged for the letter opener lying in one of the secretary compartments. The ship pitched as her fingers clamped onto the makeshift weapon. As Robert yanked her to her feet, she swung the

letter opener. Bone-deep pain raced up her arm when the hard mass of his forearm blocked her blow. The letter opener clattered to the wooden floor. She glimpsed his ragecontorted features before he whipped her around and crushed her to his chest, pinning her arms to her sides with one powerful arm. He dragged her two paces and snatched up the woolen scarf

lying on the bed. In one swift movement, he wound it around her neck. Robert released her waist, grabbed the scarf's dangling end, and yanked it tight around her neck. Elise clawed at the scarf. Her nails dug into the soft skin of her neck. Her legs buckled and he jerked her against him. His knees jabbed into her back and jolts of pain shot up both sides of her spine. She gulped

for air. His breath was thick in her ear as he whispered, "Did you really think we would let you control fifty-one percent of Landen Shipping?" He gave a vicious yank on the scarf. No! her mind screamed in tandem with another thunder roll. Too late, she understood the lengths to which he would go to gain control of her inheritance.

The scarf tightened. Her sight dimmed. Cold. She was so cold. Amelia, my daughter, I come to you—the scarf went slack. Elise dropped to her knees, wheezing in convulsive gasps of air. Despite the racking coughs which shook her, she forced her head up. A blurry form stood in the doorway. Steven. The scarf dropped to her shoulders and she yanked it

from her neck. Robert stepped in front of her and reached into his coat. The pistol. He had murdered her daughter—he would not take Steven from her. Elise lunged forward and bit into his calf with the ferocity of a lioness. Robert roared. The ship bucked. Locked like beast and prey, they tumbled forward and slammed against the desk chair. The chair broke with the force of their

weight. The secretary lamp crashed to the floor. Whale oil spilled across the wooden floor; a river of fire raced atop the thin layer toward the bed. Steven yanked her up and shoved her toward the door. Robert scrambled to his feet as Steven whirled and rammed his fist into Robert's jaw. Her husband fell against the doorjamb, nearly colliding with her. Elise

jumped back with a cry. Robert charged Steven and caught him around the shoulders, driving him back onto the bed. The ship bucked. Elise staggered across the cabin, hit her hip against the secretary, and fell. The medical journal thudded to the floor between her and the thick ribbon of fire. Her heart skipped a beat when Robert slammed his fist into Steven's jaw.

She reached for the open book and glimpsed the picture of the belladonna, the deadly nightshade plant. Fury swept through her anew. She snatched up the book, searing the edge of her palm on the fire as she pushed to her feet. Elise leapt forward, book held high, and swung at Robert with all her strength. May this belladonna kill you as your powdered belladonna killed our daughter. The crack of

book against skull penetrated the ringing in her ears. Robert fell limp atop Steven. The discarded scarf suddenly blazed. Elise whirled. Smoke choked her as fire burned the bed coverings only inches from Robert's hand. Steven grabbed her wrist and dragged her toward the door. He scooped up the pistol as they crossed the threshold and they stumbled down the corridor to the

ladder leading up to the deck. "Go!" he yelled, and lifted her onto the first tread. Elise frantically pulled herself up the steep ladder to the door and shoved it upward. Rain pelted her like tiny needles. She ducked her head down as she scrambled onto the deck. An instant later, Steven joined her. He whirled toward the poop deck where Captain Morrison and his first mate yelled at the

crewmen who clung to the masts while furiously pulling up the remaining sails and lashing them to the spars. Steven pulled her toward the poop deck's ladder. "Stay here!" he yelled above the howling wind, and forced her fingers around the side of the ladder. The ship heaved to starboard as he hurried up the ladder and Elise hugged the riser. A wave broke over the

railing and slammed her against the wood. She sputtered, tasting the tang of salt as she gasped for air. A garbled shout from the captain brought her attention upward. He stared at two men scuttling down the mizzen mast. They landed, leapt over the railing onto the main deck and disappeared through the door leading to the deck below. They had gone to extinguish the fire. If they

didn't succeed, the ship would go down. Elise squinted through the rain at Steven. He leaned in close to the captain. The lamp, burning in the binnacle, illuminated the guarded glance the captain sent her way. A shock jolted her. Robert had lied to the captain about her—perhaps had even implicated Steven in her socalled insanity. The captain's expression darkened. He

faced his first mate. The ship's bow plunged headlong into a wave with a force that threw Elise to the deck and sent her sliding across the slippery surface. Steven shouted her name as she slammed into the ship's gunwale. Pain shot through her shoulder. He rushed down the ladder, the captain on his heels. Another wave hammered the ship. Steven staggered to her side and

pulled her to her feet. The ship lurched. Elise clutched at her brother as they fell to the deck. Pain radiated through her arm and up her shoulder. The door to below deck swung open. Elise froze. Robert. He pointed a pistol at her. Her heart leapt into her throat. Steven sprang to his feet in front of her. "No!" she screamed. She spotted the pistol

lying inches away and realized it had fallen from Steven's waistband. She snatched up the weapon, rolled to face Robert, and fired. The report of the pistol sounded in unison with another shot. A wave cleared the railing. Steven disappeared in the wash of seawater. Elise grasped the cold wood railing and pulled herself to her feet. She blinked stinging saltwater

from her eyes and took a startled step backwards at seeing her husband laying across the threshold. Steven lay several feet to her right. She drew a sharp breath. A dark patch stained his vest below his heart. Dear God, where had the bullet lodged? She started toward Steven. The ship listed hard to port. She fought the backward momentum and managed two steps before

another wave crested. The deck lurched and she was airborne. She braced for impact against the deck. Howling wind matched her scream as she flew past the railing and plummeted into darkness—then collided with rock-hard water. Cold clamped onto her. Rain beat into the sea with quick, heavy blows of a thousand tiny hammers. She kicked. Thick, icy ribbons of

water propelled her upward. She blinked. Murky shapes glided past. This was Amelia's grave. Elise surfaced, her first gasp taking in rainwater. She coughed and flailed. A heavy sheet of water towered, then slapped her against the ocean's surface. The wave leveled and she shook hair from her eyes. Thirty feet away, the Amelia bounced on the waves like a toy. Her brother had

named the ship. But Amelia was gone. Steven, only twenty-two, was also gone. A figure appeared at the ship's railing. The lamp high atop the poop deck burned despite the pouring rain. Elise gasped. Could he be —"Steven!" she yelled, kicking hard in an effort to leap above another towering wave. Her skirts tangled her legs, but she kicked harder, waving both arms. The man

only hacked at the bow rope of the longboat with a sword. "Steven!" she shouted. The bow of the longboat dropped, swinging wildly as the man staggered the few steps to the rope holding the stern. A wave crashed over Elise and she surfaced to see the longboat adrift and the figure looking out over the railing. Her heart sank. The light silhouetted the man— and the captain's hat he wore.

Tears choked her. It had been the captain and not Steven. Elise pulled her skirts around her waist and knotted them, then began swimming toward the boat. Another wave grabbed the Amelia, tossing her farther away. The captain's hat lifted with the wind and sailed into the sea. She took a quick breath and dove headlong into the wave that threatened to throw her back the way she'd come. She

came up, twisting frantically in the water until she located the ship. She swam toward the longboat, her gaze steady on the Amelia. Then the lamp dimmed… and winked out.

Chapter Two Scottish Highlands Spring 1826 England lay far behind him, though not far enough. Never far enough. Marcus breathed deep of the crisp spring air. The scents of pine and heather filled his nostrils. Highland air. None sweeter

existed. His horse nickered as if in agreement, and Marcus brushed a hand along the chestnut's shoulder. "It is good to be home," Erin spoke beside him. Grunts of agreement went up from the six other men riding in the company, and Marcus answered, "Aye," despite the regret of leaving his son in the hands of the Sassenach. He surveyed the wooded

land before him—MacGregor land. Bought with Ashlund gold, held by MacGregor might, and rich with the blood of his ancestors. "If King George has his way," Erin said, "your father will follow the Duchess of Sutherland's example and lease this land to the English." Marcus jerked his attention onto the young man. Erin's broad grin reached

from ear to ear, nearly touching the edges of his thick mane of dark hair. The lad read him too easily. "These roads are riddled with enough thieves," Marcus said with a mock scowl. His horse shifted, muscles bunching with the effort of cresting the hill they ascended. "My father is no more likely to give an inch to the English than I am to give up the treasure I have tucked

away in these hills." "What?" Erin turned to his comrades. "I told you he hid Ashlund gold without telling us." Marcus bit back a laugh when the lad looked at him and added, "Lord Phillip still complains highwaymen stole his daughter's dowry while on the way to Edinburgh." He gave Marcus a comical look that said you know nothing of that, do you? "Lord Allerton broke the

engagement after highwaymen stole the dowry," put in another of the men. "Said Lord Phillip meant to cheat him." "Lord Allerton is likely the thief," Marcus said. "The gold was the better part of the bargain." "Lord Phillip's daughter is an attractive sort," Erin mused. "Much like bread pudding. Sturdy, with just the right jiggle."

A round of guffaws went up and one aging warrior cuffed Erin across the back of his neck. They gained the hill and Marcus's laughter died at sight of the figure hurrying across the open field below. He gave an abrupt signal for silence. The men obeyed and only the chirping of spring birds filled the air. * * * * "Tavis," Elise snapped, finally within hearing range

of the boy and his sister, "this time you've gone too far and have endangered your sister by leaving the castle." His attention remained fixed on the thickening woods at the bottom of the hill and her frustration gave way to concern. They were only minutes from the village —a bare half an hour from the keep and safely on MacGregor land—but the boy had intended to go farther—

much farther. He had just turned fourteen, old enough to carry out the resolve to find the men who had murdered his father, and too young to understand the danger. Bonnie tugged on her cloak and Elise looked down at her. The little girl grinned and pointed to the wildflowers surrounding them. Elise smiled, then shoved back the hood of her

cloak. Bonnie squatted to pick the flowers. Elise's heart wrenched. If only their father still lived. He would teach Tavis a lesson. Of course, if Shamus still lived, Tavis wouldn't be hunting for murderers. Those men were guilty of killing an innocent, yet no effort had been made to bring them to justice. The disquiet that always hovered close to the surface caused a nervous

tremor to ripple through her stomach. While Shamus's murderers would likely never go before a judge, if Price found her, his version of justice would be in the form of a noose around her neck for the crime of defending herself against a man who had tried to kill her—twice. Any doubts about her stepfather's part in Amelia's death had been dispelled a month after arriving at

Brahan Seer when she read a recent edition of the London Sunday Times brought by relatives for Michael MacGregor. She found no mention of the Amelia's sinking. Instead, a ten thousand pound reward for information leading to the whereabouts of her body was printed in the announcements section. Reward? Bounty is what it was.

The advertisement gave the appearance that Price was living up to his obligations as President of Landen Shipping. But she knew he intended she reach Boston dead—and reach Boston she would, for without her body, he would have to wait five years before taking control of her fifty-one percent of Landen Shipping. She intended to slip the noose over his head first.

Elise caught sight of her trembling fingers, and her stomach heaved with the memory of Amelia's body sliding noiselessly from the ship into the ocean. She choked back despair. If she had suspected that Robert had been poisoning her daughter even a few months earlier— "Flowers!" Elise jerked at Bonnie's squeal. The girl stood with a handful of flowers extended

toward her. Elise brushed her fingers across the white petals of the stitchwort and the lavender butterwort. She was a fool to involve herself with the people here, but when Shamus was murdered she been unable to remain withdrawn. "Riders," Tavis said. Elise tensed. "Where?" "There." Tavis pointed into the trees. She leaned forward and

traced the line of his arm with her gaze. A horse's rump slipped out of sight into the denser forest. Goose bumps raced across her arms. Elise straightened and yanked Bonnie into her arms "It will be dark soon—" Tavis faced her and she stopped short when his gaze focused on something behind her. Elise looked over her shoulder. Half a dozen riders emerged from the forest

across the meadow. She started. Good Lord, what had possessed her to leave Brahan Seer without a pistol? She was as big a fool as Tavis and without the excuse of youth. She slid Bonnie to the ground as the warriors approached. They halted fifteen feet away. Elise edged Bonnie behind her when one of the men urged his horse closer. Her pulse jumped. Was it possible to become accustomed to the

size of these Highland men? She flushed at the spectacle of his open shirt but couldn't stop her gaze from sliding along the velvety dark hair that trailed downward and tapered off behind a white lawn shirt negligently tucked into his kilt. The large sword strapped to his hip broke the fascination. How many had perished at the point of that weapon? The hard muscles of his

chest and arms gave evidence —many. The man directed a clipped sentence in Gaelic to Tavis. The boy started past her, but she caught his arm. The men wore the red and green plaide of her benefactors the MacGregors, but were strangers. "What do you want?" She cursed the curt demand that had bypassed good sense in favor of a willing tongue.

Except for a flicker of surprise across the man's face, he sat unmoving. Elise winced inwardly, remembering her American accent, but said in a clear voice, "I asked what you want." Leather groaned when he leaned forward on his saddle. He shifted the reins to the hand resting in casual indolence on his leg and replied in English, "I asked

the boy why he is unarmed outside the castle with two females." Caught off guard by the deep vibrancy of his soft burr, her heart skipped a beat. "We don't need weapons on MacGregor land." She kept her tone unhurried. "The MacGregor's reach extends as far as the solitude of this glen?" he asked. "We are only fifteen minutes from the village," she

said. "But his reach is well beyond this place." "He is great, indeed," the warrior said. "You know him?" "I do." She lifted Bonnie. "Then you know he would wreak vengeance on any who dared harm his own." "Aye," the man answered. "The MacGregor would hunt them down like dogs. Only," he paused, "how

would he know who to hunt?" She gave him a disgusted look. "I tracked these children. You think he cannot track you?" "A fine point," he agreed. "Good." She took a step forward. "Now, we will be getting home." "Aye, you should be getting home." He urged his horse to intercept. Elise set Bonnie down, shoving her in Tavis's direction. "And," the

man went on, "we will take you." The warriors closed in around them. "The lad will ride with Erin. Give the little one to Kyle, and you," his eyes came back hard on Elise, "will ride with me." The heat in his gaze sent a flush through her, but her ire piqued. "We do not accept favors from strangers." His gaze unexpectedly deepened. She stilled. What the

devil? Was that amusement on his face? "We are not strangers," he said. There was no mistaking the laughter in his eyes now. "Are we, Tavis?" His gaze shifted to the boy. "Nay," he replied with a shy smile. "No' strangers at all, laird." "You know this man?" Elise asked. "He is the laird's son." "Marcus!" Bonnie cried,

peeking from behind Elise's skirts. Elise looked at him. Marcus? This was the son Cameron had spoken of with such affection these past months? It suddenly seemed comical that she had doubted Cameron's stories of his son's exploits on the battlefield. She had believed the aging chief's stories were exaggerations, but the giant of a man before her was

clearly capable of every feat with which his father had credited him. Prodded by the revelation, she discerned the resemblance between father and son. Though grey sprinkled Cameron's hair, the two shared the same unruly, dark hair, the same build… and… "You have his eyes," she said. He chuckled. Heat flooded her cheeks.

She pulled Bonnie into her arms. "You might have said who you were." She gave him an assessing look. "Only that wouldn't have been half as much fun. Who will take the child?" His gaze fixed on the hand she had wrapped around Bonnie and the small burn scar that remained as a testament of her folly. His attention broke when a voice from behind her said in a

thick brogue, "'Tis me ye be looking for, lass." She turned to a weathered warrior who urged his mount forward. Elise handed Bonnie up to him. Stepping back, she bumped into the large body of a horse. Before she could move, an arm encircled her from behind, pulling her upward across hard thighs. A tremor shot through her. She hadn't been this close to a man's body since—since

those first months of her seven-year marriage. Panic seized her in a quick, hard rush. The trees blurred as her mind plunged backward in time to the touch of the man who had promised till death do them part. Her husband's gentle hand on their wedding night splintered into his violent grip the night he'd tried to murder her—the movement of thighs beneath her buttocks broke the trance

as Marcus MacGregor spurred his horse into motion. His arms tightened around her and she held her breath, praying he couldn't hear her thudding heart. The ambling movement of the bulky horse lifted her from Marcus's lap. She clutched at his shirt. Her knuckles brushed his bare chest and she jerked back as if singed by hot coals. Her body lifted again with the

horse's next step and she instinctively threw her arms around Marcus's forearm. His hold tightened as rich laughter rumbled through his chest. "Do not worry, lass. Upon pain of death, I swear, you will not slip from my arms until your feet touch down at Brahan Seer." Elise grimaced, then straightened in an effort to shift from the sword hilt

digging into her back. "What's wrong?" He leaned her back in his arms and gazed down at her. She stared. Robert had never looked so—she sat upright. "I've simply never ridden a horse in this manner." "There are many ways to ride a horse, lass," he said softly. Elise snapped her gaze to his face, then jerked back

when her lips nearly brushed his. She felt herself slip and clutched at his free arm even as the arm around her crushed her closer. Her breasts pressed against his chest where his shirt lay open. Heat penetrated her bodice, hardening her nipples. A surprising warmth sparked between her legs. She caught sight of his smile an instant before she dropped her gaze. * * * *

Their ascent steepened. Marcus closed the circle of his arms around the woman's waist. She leaned into him. It was a shame she wore a cloak. Without it, her bare arms would lay against his chest. He hardened. Bloody hell. Shift even a hair's breadth and the challenge he'd seen in her gaze an hour ago would resurface, accompanied by a slap across his face.

She had betrayed no fear when he came upon her— other than her open assessment of his weapon. Odd his sword should be what frightened her. She must have known if he meant mischief, he needed no weapon save his body. An erotic picture arose of her straddling him, breasts arched so he could suckle each until she begged him to lift her onto his erection.

He forced back the vision and focused on her determination to defend the children with her life… or perhaps, her body. He smiled, then gritted his teeth when he further hardened at the memory of her leaning over Tavis's shoulders as she scanned the forest for the riders he'd sent. Hands braced on her knees, her posture revealed the curve of a firm derriere.

When she turned at their approach, the wind had blown her brown hair about her shoulders, bringing his attention to the sensual curve of modest breasts visible just above the edge of her bodice. He envisioned hips tapering into long legs and wondered what those legs would feel like wrapped tightly around his waist while he thrust deep inside her. Her accent had caught

him off guard. What was an American woman doing on MacGregor land, and how had she come to know Tavis and Bonnie well enough to track them through the woods? Hot fury shot through him. The little fool. Had the wrong man come upon her, she might well have ended up like Katie. The majestic heights of Brahan Seer's west tower abruptly loomed in the

distance. Marcus's steed unexpectedly faltered, then steadied. The woman tensed and Marcus's body pulsed. He closed his eyes, breathed deep of her hair, then looked again at the tower. For the first time in his life, he regretted the sight. His ride with her cradled in his arms would soon end. Higher they climbed, until Brahan Seer's walls became visible. The gates

were open. At their approach, his captain Daniel hailed from the battlements. Marcus nodded as they rode through the entry. Inside the courtyard, he halted and Daniel appeared at his side. "Elise," he addressed the woman, surprise apparent on his features. He glanced at the children, his gaze lingering on Bonnie. His mouth tightened. "Mayhap Marcus can take a hand with you,

Tavis. Get along, and take your sister. Your mother will be worried." Marcus handed Elise down to him. Before Marcus's feet touched the ground, she had started toward the castle. He dismounted and clasped Daniel's hand while watching from the corner of his eye the sway of her cloak about her hips as she answered a welcoming smile from two of his men headed toward the

stables. "What were they doing out alone?" Marcus demanded of Daniel. "I've ordered the boy not to go wandering the woods," he replied. "And Bonnie?" "This is the first. I imagine she chased after her brother." Elise turned the corner around the castle and Marcus cut his gaze onto her the

instant before she disappeared. Lust shot to the surface and tightened his shaft, but he turned back to Daniel. "Why is Shamus letting his children run wild —never mind. I'll speak to him. You look well." Daniel hesitated, then said, "Chloe is with child." Marcus smiled in genuine pleasure. "Congratulations, man." Daniel smiled, then took

the reins as Marcus turned toward the castle. Through the busy courtyard, he answered greetings, but his thoughts remained on the image of Elise as she vanished from sight. She had a forthright, strong quality. Yet—he bent his head to breathe her lingering scent from his clothes—the lavender bouquet in her hair was decidedly feminine. It would

be some time before he forgot the feel of her buttocks across his thighs. But then, perhaps he wouldn't have to. Marcus entered the great hall to find his father sitting alone in his chair at the head of the table. Cameron brightened. "So, ye decided to come home?" Relaxing warmth rippled through Marcus. "Tired of wandering the land?" Cameron made a wide

sweeping gesture. "You knew I was on my way, but, aye." He stopped at the chair to his father's right and lowered himself onto the seat. "I am pleased to be home." "How is my grandson? I see you did not bring him with you." Marcus sighed. "Nay, Father. You knew I wouldn't." Cameron snorted. "We

would not want to offend the mighty Sassenach." "Father," Marcus said in a low tone. Cameron shook his head. "The clan never asked you to concede to the English, you know. I never asked for it. Did you ever wonder if the sacrifice is worth your son?" "Aye," Marcus murmured. He'd wondered. Politics had ruled the MacGregor clan for centuries

and that wasn't easily changed. He paused. "Have I been gone too long, or is something different about the great hall?" "You have the right of it, lad." Eyes that mirrored his own looked back at him. "More than you can imagine." Marcus looked about the room. "I can't quite place it. What's happened?" Cameron took a long, exaggerated draught of ale.

"Cameron." "Enough of your looks, lad. They do not work with me." He chuckled. "I taught them to you. Remember? It is no mystery, really. Look around. When did you last see the tapestries so bright, the floors so clean?" He motioned toward the wall that ran the length of the room, framed by stairs on either end. "When have you seen the weapons so polished?"

Marcus scanned the nearly two hundred gleaming weapons mounted across the wall. He rose and walked the wall's length, perusing the weapons. Each one glistened, some nearly as bright as newly forged steel. He glanced at the floor. The stone looked as if it had just been laid. He looked at his father. "What happened?" "The women came one

day—or rather, one month— and swept out the cobwebs, cleaned the floors, the tapestries, weapons." Marcus rose and crossed the room to the kitchen door where the women worked. The housekeeper sat at the kitchen table. Ancient blue eyes, still shining with the bloom of youth, smiled back at him. Winnie had been present at his birth. Marcus knew she loved him like the

son she'd never had. He, in turn, regarded her with as much affection as he had his own mother. She turned her attention to the raw chicken she carved. "So, you've returned at last." "Aye, milady." A corner of her mouth twitched with amusement. "I am looking forward to the company of some fine lasses tonight," he said. "'Tis

a long and lonely trip I've had. Perhaps next time I shall take you with me." He gave her a roguish wink before striding back to his seat in the hall. Marcus lowered himself into the chair he had occupied earlier. "Must have taken an army just to shine the weapons alone. Not to mention the walls and floors." "It did. You will see the same throughout the castle.

Not a room went untouched." "Whatever possessed them to do it?" "It was the hand of a sweet lass," Cameron replied. "Which one? Not Winnie —" "Nay. The lass Shannon and Josh found washed ashore on the coast. They brought her when they returned from the south." "Washed ashore?" "An American woman.

Her ship perished in a fire." "American?" Cameron scowled. "Are you deaf? Shannon is the one who discovered her at Solway Firth." "What in God's name was she doing there?" Cameron gave his chin a speculative scratch. "Damned if I know. They were headed for London." "London? Sailing through Solway Firth requires

sailing around the north of Ireland. That would add a week or more to the journey." His father's mouth twisted into a wry grin. "You know the English, probably got lost." "I thought you said she was American." "English, American, 'tis all the same." Cameron's expression sobered. "But dinna' mistake me, she is a fine lass. She came to us just

after you left for Ashlund four months ago. You should have seen her when they brought her here. Proud little thing." "Proud, indeed," Marcus repeated. "'Tis what I said." Cameron eyed him. "Are you sure something isn't ailing you?" Marcus shook his head. "At first, she didn't say much," Cameron went on.

"But I could see a storm brewed in her head. Then one day, she informed me Brahan Seer was in dire need of something." He sighed deeply. "She was more right than she knew." Marcus understood his father's meaning. His mother's death five years ago had affected Cameron dramatically. Only last year had his father finally sought female comfort. The gaping

hole created by her absence left them both thirsting for a firm, feminine hand. "It's a miracle she survived the fire," Cameron said. "'Course, if you knew her, you would not be surprised." "I believe I do," Marcus remarked. "What? You only just arrived." "I picked up passengers on the way home—Tavis,

little Bonnie, and an American woman." Marcus related the tale. "I recognized her accent," he ended. "Got accustomed to it while on campaign in America." Cameron smiled. "Elise is forever chasing after those children." "Why?" His father's expression darkened. "Shamus was murdered." Marcus straightened.

"Murdered?" "Aye." "By God, how—Lauren, what of her?" Sadness softened the hard lines around his father's mouth. "She is fine, in body, but… her mind has no' been the same since Shamus died. We tried consoling her, but she will have none of it." A tingling sensation crept up Marcus's back. "What happened?"

"We found him just over the border in Montal Cove with his skull bashed in." "Any idea who did it?" "Aye," Cameron said. "Campbells." Marcus surged to his feet. He strode to the wall, where hung the claymore belonging to his ancestor Ryan MacGregor, the man who saved their clan from annihilation. Marcus ran a finger along the blade, the

cold, hard steel heating his blood as nothing else could. Except… Campbells. Had two centuries of bloodshed not been enough? Fifty years ago, King George finally proclaimed the MacGregors no longer outlaws and restored their Highland name. General John Murray, Marcus's great uncle, was named clan chief. Only recently, the MacGregors were given a place of honor

in the escort, which carried the "Honors of Scotland" before the sovereign. Marcus had been there, marching alongside his clansmen. Too many dark years had passed under this cloud. Would the hunted feeling Ryan MacGregor experienced ever fade from the clan? Perhaps it would have been better if Helena hadn't saved Ryan that fateful day so long ago. But Ryan had lived, and

his clan thrived, not by the sword, but by the timeless power of gold. Aye, the Ashlund name Helena gave Ryan saved them. Yet, Ryan MacGregor's soul demanded recompense. How could Ryan rest while his people still perished? Marcus removed his hand from the sword and faced his father. "It's time the MacGregors brought down

the Campbell dogs." * * * * Feminine laughter spilled from the kitchen into the great hall during the evening meal. Marcus sighed with contentment. Light from sconces flickered like a great, filmy curtain across the room. Two serving girls carrying trays of food stepped from the kitchen, and the men, who blocked the doorway, parted. The sense of contentment

came as an almost unconscious realization. He had missed sharing the evening meal with his clansmen. Marcus leaned forward, arms crossed in front of him on the table, and returned his attention to the conversation with Cameron and Daniel. "We will be ready at first light, laird," Daniel said. "The Campbells will not be expecting trouble,"

Cameron put in. "If word has reached them that I've returned, they may be," Marcus said. Cameron grunted. "Lot of good it will do." The feminine voice Marcus had been waiting for filtered out from within the kitchen. "Easy now, Andrea," Elise said. The conversation between his father and Daniel faded as Marcus watched for

her amongst the men who crowded between the door and table. The thought of seeing her beautiful body heated his blood. Elise stepped from the kitchen, balancing a plate of salmon. She passed the table's end where he sat and carefully picked her way through the men until reaching the middle of the table. She set the oval platter between the chicken and mutton.

"Beth, place the carrots to the left. Andrea—" She took the plate of potatoes from the girl, then set it to the right and turned toward the kitchen. "Elise," one of the young warriors called, "come, talk with us, lass." Her mouth quirked. "If I play with you, who will finish dinner?" The man's hearty chuckle gave evidence she hadn't

fooled him, and he approached with friends in tow. Cameron stood. "Elise," he called over the men's heads, "come here." She turned. When her gaze met Cameron's, warmth filled her eyes. She dried her hands on her apron and headed in his direction. "Go on, lads," Cameron said to the men who teased her. "You have better things

to do than dally with the lassies." When she came within arm's reach, he gripped her shoulders. "Meet my son. He's returned today." He turned her. Her gaze met Marcus's. Her smile faltered but quickly transformed into polite civility. "We've met." "Oh?" Cameron replied, all innocence. "Yes. He came by when

Tavis, Bonnie, and I were on our way home this afternoon." "Ahh," Cameron said, then turned and gave the man beside him an energetic greeting. Elise looked again at Marcus and motioned toward the kitchen. "I have work to do." "Aye," he said. The memory of her breasts pressed against his chest

caused him to harden. She backed up a few steps, then turned and ran headlong into the man behind her. He reached to steady her. A flush colored her cheeks and Marcus bit back a laugh when she dodged the warrior. Marcus leaned forward, catching one last look at her backside before she disappeared through the kitchen door.

Chapter Three At the sound of horses padding past the cottage she shared with Winnie, Elise looked up from the table where sat the teacup she had been refilling. She glanced from the curtained window to Winnie, who remained bent over her needlework. Elise took two steps to the

fireplace, hooked the kettle over the fire, and went to the window. She pulled back the lace curtain to see a procession of warriors filing past the cottages. Marcus MacGregor rode at the head of the company. He sat straight, his body shifting in easy motion with the horse's rhythmic movements. Her father had exuded the same careless confidence. Elise recalled her

mother often watching from a window as he rode away. The warmth spreading through Elise now gave her an understanding of what her mother must have felt. "Ridiculous," she muttered. "What?" Winnie called, but she didn't answer, mesmerized as Marcus turned his profile to her and addressed the man to his left. The edges of his dark

hair curled along the line of his ear and down his neck. He smiled. The remembered feel of his solid chest against her breasts arose with surprising intensity. What would his chest feel like beneath her fingers? Her pulse quickened. Where had that thought come from? Marcus's horse disappeared around a sharp turn in the path. Elise surveyed the long line of men following.

"Where are they going?" she murmured. "To the Hastings Campbells," Winnie said. "I thought the MacGregors and Campbells were feuding." "They are." The last of the men disappeared from view. "Why go then?" "To deal with Shamus's murderer." Elise swung her gaze

back to Winnie. "Shamus has been dead two months. Why has Cameron waited so long to bring the guilty man before the law?" "Cameron is the law," Winnie replied. A tremor rippled through Elise. Price, too, had appointed himself law. "How can Cameron be impartial? It is his kin who was murdered." The housekeeper

grunted. "How impartial should he be?" "Surely he wouldn't kill in cold blood?" Winnie's head snapped up. "Cold blood? What the Campbells done—killing Shamus—that was cold blood." Elise realized she had crushed the curtain and released it. She crossed to the table and grasped the back of the chair across from Winnie.

"Has Cameron identified the killer?" "Each kinsman is responsible for the other." Elise stared. "Have you any idea what you are saying?" "Every Highlander will tell you the same." "Even the Highlands of Scotland can't be so uncivilized as to seek recompense of the guilty party's neighbors. The man

who committed the crime, he alone is responsible." "Mayhap," Winnie said as she squinted at the tiny stitching. "But his kinsmen would have to hand him over to his accusers, and the Campbells are not known for thinking themselves guilty for ridding the world of a MacGregor." Elise kept her tight grip on the chair. Would the MacGregors hand her over to

Price? Would the ten thousand pound reward sway them? "So an entire clan will suffer for one man's wickedness?" "'Tis a funny thing you'll find in the clans," Winnie said, her attention intent on the sewing. "Some do nothing but fight. Others are peaceful, while some are just plain scoundrels. Whatever they are, 'tis generally agreed amongst themselves. Like

begets like. If a man differs, he can take refuge elsewhere." Warmth rippled through Elise. Just as she had taken refuge here. She watched Winnie stitch the intricate needlework on the linen blanket meant for Chloe's new baby. How much like her were these people? Sadness wound through her. What did it matter? When Price finally believed she had perished at

sea and stopped advertising the notice, she would then board a ship without fear a bounty hunter was looking for her. Her wedding band, hidden behind a loose stone in the ladies' drawing room, would buy passage to America. There she would testify that she shot Robert in defense of her brother and herself. Would her word be enough? She wasn't the only

person who had survived the sinking of the Amelia. Someone had reported to Price that she shot Robert. Was that person friend or foe? Would that person try to stop her from bringing Price Ardsley to his knees? Elise startled at the realization that she intended to dispense her own brand of justice. "Justice isn't always what it should be," she murmured. Winnie snorted. "It is the

law of the land—every land —and the Campbells know it. They're a bloodthirsty lot." Her countenance softened and she nodded toward her teacup. "Fill my cup." The normalcy of the request loosened the tightening in Elise's stomach. She retrieved the kettle from the fire and poured hot water into Winnie's cup, then dropped in a tea ball. "You canna' know,"

Winnie began, still working her stitching, "what it is to have everyone against ye, even your own king." Elise returned the kettle to its place and seated herself at the table. Her soul grew heavy at hearing how more than two hundred years ago the government gave the Campbells all MacGregor land, heedless of the fact the property was occupied. "Even the MacGregor

name was outlawed," Winnie said. "Our line would have died if not for Ryan MacGregor." Winnie went on to tell how the foresight of a single man saved an entire people. Ryan MacGregor, traitor to the Scottish crown, married a woman wealthy enough to shun the insidious alliance of the merchants and government, then bought land and furnished his people with

weapons to keep it. "How he angered the Campbells," she said with satisfaction. "We still lived and died by the sword, mind you, for a Campbell cannot bear to see a MacGregor at peace. But we had a sword to fight with." But the horror had only begun, Elise realized as Winnie went on. The political tide then turned against all Highlanders.

"Clearances, they call it. Evictions." Winnie jabbed her needle into the cloth. "Murder. Our chiefs evicted us. Their own kin. All in the name of progress. But the Duchess of Sutherland, she is the devil incarnate. Ninety families, she started with, but the numbers got as high as two thousand families in a single day." Elise gasped. "Dear God, how is that possible?"

"It happened." "Who is this duchess?" "The most powerful woman in all Scotland— mayhap, the world. She owns tens of thousands of acres of land. When she realized ranching held better profit than farming, she began evictions. Thousands thrown out of their homes no matter their age or infirmity. Many were left by the wayside to die like animals. Not a family

lives who hasn't been touched by the clearances. My great uncle Duncan McKay," Winnie's voice grew shaky, "he and his family, caught in the dead of night. Four bairns burned in their beds." Elise's throat constricted at the picture of burning beds and children screaming for their parents. Soundless tears rolled down Winnie's cheeks. "Duncan lived, poor devil,

despite being nearly burned to death. They brought him here." "Here?" Elise asked in a choked voice. "Aye. My mother was Cameron's father's healer, then his for many years. But she couldna' do a thing for Duncan. He could have lived, or so she said, but the spirit died with his wife and children. There are others, but Duncan I remember best."

She looked up "Have you ever seen a man burned?" Unreasonable panic rose with the memory of the fire that had so quickly spread across the Amelia's cabin floor. Elise shook her head. "Pray you never do." Winnie returned to her embroidering. "The Campbells stood alongside the duchess. They had government and church sanction. We were to be

broken, you see. It did not matter that our men fought for the crown while their families died at home. We never bowed to their authority and that pricked them." "And the Campbells," Elise said, "they took part in the… the…" "Aye." Winnie nodded. "They made it their business to see to the MacGregors." Elise's heart swelled

when she learned of those few leaders who stood by their own. Of how the MacLeod chiefs improved the lives of their clansmen by ensuring their monies were shared amongst the people. The MacDonalds, too, had not partaken in the atrocities. "Then," Winnie said, her voice softening, "we have the MacGregor." Warmth emanated from her as she related how

Cameron MacGregor, along with his young son, Marcus, defended their people. Only a few scant years ago Marcus picked up the gauntlet passed from father to son and returned to Brahan Seer with over a hundred ragged and defeated Highlanders. They were all he could save from the Sutherlund riots at Gruids. "The Campbells were there," Winnie went on. "They gained noble rank—at

the expense of the MacGregors. It's our wealth they stole. But we didn't lay down for it—and how they hate us for it." Her fingers convulsed on the embroidery needle. "They hate Cameron even more because he offered asylum to any Highlander. Two years ago, Marcus met them with a fist of iron when he attacked the Bannatyne Campbells." "Dear God, why?"

"Katie MacGregor. If you had seen what they did to the lass—" Winnie forced the needle through the soft linen as if it was leather and gave a sudden cry. A small pearl of blood splotched the beige cloth from beneath. "Winnie!" Elise jumped to her feet. Winnie snatched up the cloth and began sucking the blood from the linen. Elise

grabbed the rag hanging over the hearth and wrapped it around Winnie's finger. Elise gripped it tightly, stanching the flow of blood. Winnie examined the cloth, then began sucking again. "Shall I fetch some water?" Elise asked. "Nay," Winnie replied, still sucking. "The saliva of the blood's owner is what takes blood from cloth." She looked at the cloth. The blood

had disappeared. "This isn't the first MacGregor blood spilled because of Campbells, and it will not be the last." A chill snaked through Elise. Would the next dead MacGregor be amongst those who just set out for Campbell land? * * * * Elise bolted upright in bed, the echo of a scream giving way to the pounding in her ears. She looked wildly

about the room but, instead of flames surrounding her as they had an instant before, only the hearth burned with soft, red embers. A faint light radiated from the coals. She gulped a deep breath upon recognizing the shadowed contours of the cottage she shared with Winnie. Which dream had awoken her this time? The one where she hadn't escaped her stateroom before it went up in flames, or

the one where the flames of hell surrounded her? Dear God, forgive me. She choked back tears. He might forgive her, but Amelia and Steven wouldn't. "Elise." Elise jerked her attention to the far side of the room where Winnie slept. "What is amiss?" the housekeeper asked in a sleepladen voice. "You cried out —" Her gaze swung in the

direction of the door. "What in God's name?" The insistent knocking at the door penetrated Elise's brain and she realized the noise had yanked her from the dream. Winnie threw back the covers and jumped out of bed. She draped a wrap about her shoulders and hurried to the door. "Who is it?" She yanked open the door. "Mary, girl," Winnie growled at the

maid, "you had better—" "The men have returned," the maid interrupted. "They're demanding supper." "Mother of God," Winnie whispered. "Go along, child. I will follow in a minute." She shoved the door shut and scampered on tiptoe across the drafty floor to her bed. "I'll come," Elise said as Winnie pulled off her shift and reached for the grey dress

draped over her bed's foot board. "No need." Winnie slipped the dress over her head. Elise got to her feet. "No sense lying here while you work." She quickly dressed, then grabbed the plaide from the foot of her bed and draped it over her shoulders as she followed Winnie out the door. Minutes later, Elise

slowed two paces into the kitchen, startled by the grim silence that pressed in about the room. Winnie hastened to the counter where Mary and another girl were placing mutton and chicken on platters. Elise shook off the morose feeling and tossed the plaide she wore onto the counter, then hurried forward to join in the preparations. "Nay, Wilma," Winnie admonished. "Leave the plate

of mutton. You and Mary fetch wine from the cellar. The men will sleep better with a little help." The girls hurried off. Cold chicken, bread, and peas were quickly placed on platters. Elise took the platter Winnie placed in her hands and headed for the great hall. The camaraderie which generally characterized gatherings in the eating hall was absent. When Elise set

the peas on the table, her heart stirred at sight of the men's exhausted faces. She cast a furtive glance at Marcus. The hard set of his mouth and hollow eyes startled her. What had happened to the carefree devil who held her in his arms only a few days ago? She returned to the kitchen. "Take those." Winnie pointed to the bottles of wine sitting on the table, then

turned back to the bread she had unwrapped from its cloth cover. Elise hesitated. Four uneventful months at Brahan Seer had dulled her senses. Why hadn't she realized Cameron's son would be with his men tonight? A tremor rocked her belly. Neither had she considered that he could have read the wanted notice for Elisabeth Kingston while in London. He was far more

sophisticated than Michael and, surely, far less trusting. Given time, would Marcus MacGregor recognize Elise as the nickname for Elisabeth? "Elise." She snapped from her thoughts and saw Winnie staring expectantly at her. Elise grabbed the bottles of wine on the table and reentered the hall. Marcus's plate was untouched. She set the wine on the table. His

gaze met and held hers for an instant before he shoved back his chair and rose. She remained rooted to the spot as he strode to the stairwell. At the stairs, he paused and looked back at her, eyes dark with need. He turned suddenly and headed up the stairs. Her breath caught at sight of his shirt, taut across his shoulders, and her gaze dropped to his calves in the instant before he

disappeared from view. Elise broke the stare and realized her pulse had jumped to a gallop. Good Lord, was the greater danger Marcus connecting her to the Elisabeth Kingston wanted for murder, or her reaction to him? Until now, she hadn't worried how long Price persisted in searching for her. She had been sure she could wait him out. Now, could she afford to wait—could she

afford to remain even another night near Marcus MacGregor? * * * * Marcus awoke, his body hard with arousal. He shifted his thoughts from Elise to the Campbells, but the memory of her face the night before persisted. Her eyes changed with her mood. Would those eyes darken with passion when she lay beneath him? He stirred restlessly. How

might she cry out as he brought her to her pleasure? He would find out—and soon. Ten minutes later, Marcus entered the kitchen to find the women busy with preparations for the meals. "Good morning, Winnie." He seated himself across the table from her. She reached for a sprig of herbs from one of the piles before her and began grinding

it in a mortar bowl. "Morning." He glanced at the rear door. "No sense watching the door. She isna' here." He leaned forward. "You are a witch, Winnie, my love. Where is she?" "Michael's. She set out early this morning." "Why?" "He broke his leg. She makes sure he is tended to."

"Indeed?" "Indeed." Winnie reached for another sprig of herbs. Marcus rose and kissed her cheek. "Making trouble while I've been gone, I wager?" She looked up. "No more than usual." "So I thought," he said, and left the kitchen. * * * * Marcus looked from his

father to the warrior entering the great hall. The man strode past the men gathered for the evening meal and stopped at the table opposite him. "Lady Ross to see you, laird," he said. "And you back but a day from fighting with Campbells," Cameron said. Marcus sighed. "I suppose she knows I'm here." The guard looked uncomfortable.

"You can escape out the back," his father suggested, but the door opened again and Lady Margaret Ross entered dressed in a tightly fitting riding habit that said she'd been in the saddle the better part of the day. "I told ye not to dally with noblewomen," Cameron added under his breath, and stood as she approached. "Margaret, lass, how are you?" He clasped her hands in his.

"Your Grace." She dipped into a deep curtsy. He shot Marcus a dry look while her head was bowed. "Enough, lassie." He pulled the petite woman to her feet. "We are not in Edinburgh." He released her hands. "You will forgive me, if I dinna' stay. I have a mare that bears attending." He winked. "You won't miss me, I feel sure." "It is always good to see

you, Your Grace." "It is good to see you, as well." "You haven't had your supper, Cameron," Marcus remarked. "Aye, well, I cannot leave Coreen alone too long. She is due to foal any time." "Craig can watch after her." Cameron snorted. "The boy doesna' know a gelding from a stallion."

"The next time you geld a stallion, have him watch. He'll remember after that." His father cast a sheepish look at Margaret. "Well, I do not think—" "Never mind," Marcus cut in. "As you say, you have a mare to attend to." "I do," he agreed, and made a hasty exit. Lady Ross looked to Marcus. "Lord Ashlund." She started to curtsy again.

"None of that, Margaret," he said. She paused and studied him from beneath her lashes then, with an incline of her head, straightened. She gave him an inquiring look and he stood. "Gille," he addressed the man seated to his right, "give your seat up to the lady." The man stood and bowed. Lady Ross angled her

head in thanks, then sat. "You are looking well," she said. "Did you enjoy London?" Once again, the postern door opened and Marcus paused in sitting to look see who entered. Recognizing the newcomer as another of his men, he seated himself. "Lord Ashlund," came Margaret's insistent voice. "My visit went well." He forced his attention to her. "I'm sorry I could not

accompany you as you wanted." "It was you who requested an escort, Margaret, not I who requested your presence." "A shame my plans changed," she went on. "Unfortunately, I now must go to London." She smiled. "I would be glad of your company." He gave a mirthless laugh. "London twice a year

is quite enough. I have no wish to make it three." She laid a hand on his arm. "Not long ago you would have done this for me." "Made a special trip to London? You're confusing me with another of your admirers." The women began serving the food and he glanced at the clock over the mantle. The evening grew late. "Did you come alone?"

he demanded. "I did." Marcus frowned. "Very foolish." The postern door creaked open again. Daniel stepped in. He looked in Marcus's direction. Amusement flicked across his face before he turned and exited. "Are you expecting someone?" Margaret asked. A maid placed a platter of mutton on his side of the

table and he reached for it. "I will have one of my men escort you home." He dished a helping of meat onto his plate. "It is so late, I thought perhaps…" Marcus paused and looked at her. "You knew you would arrive after dark. Why do it?" She stiffened. "Sheathe your conceit, Marcus. You were not the only person I

visited today." She pursed her lips. "If my staying is too much of an inconvenience…" He glanced again at the clock. Elise wouldn't journey home in the dark. He sat the platter of meat on the table. If she did, he would clip her lovely wings. * * * * When Elise didn't return the following afternoon, Marcus went in search of his father and found him in the

stables keeping watch on Coreen. "It isn't unusual for her to be gone a day or two when she goes to Michael's," Cameron said. "She likes to make sure he is well-caredfor." "What the blazes does that mean?" Marcus demanded. His father stopped midstroke as he ran his hand across the mare's distended

belly. "Hell, lad, the man is my age. What would he want with a lass Elise's age?" "Age has not stopped you of late." Cameron flushed. "A man cannot resist the charms of a woman forever, you know." "That's exactly what I am afraid of," Marcus muttered. "Although," Cameron said, his tone thoughtful, "I didna' see young Erin return

with you. Did he go directly to Michael's? He has not seen his father in months." "Yes, by God. How long did you say she usually stays with Michael?" The mare nickered and Cameron began stroking her again. "She does, on occasion, stay a couple days, but, certainly, never longer." "And it has been two days." "It has," Cameron said

with such emphasis that Marcus looked at him. "I'll ride out and make sure she is safe." "A fine idea. We would not want anything to happen, would we?" Marcus gave his father a recriminating look, then snapped out an order for his stallion to be saddled. Marcus stopped in front of Michael's cottage,

dismounted, and tossed the reins over the post to the right of the porch. He entered the cottage without knocking. "Back for more, lass?" came Michael's voice from behind the curtain that enclosed the corner bed. "More of what?" Marcus demanded. Michael drew back the curtain with a flourish. He met Marcus's gaze and grinned. "Marcus, this is a

surprise." "I imagine so," he said as Michael rose and hobbled toward him. The old man halted. "Is something wrong?" "Nay. Where is Elise? She's been gone some time and Cameron is concerned." "Concerned?" Michael looked puzzled. "I cannot imagine why—" He stopped, his eyes narrowing shrewdly. "Are you sure 'tis not you

who is worried?" Marcus relaxed. "Where is she?" "Marcus, you've come all this way, and I haven't seen you in an age. Surely, you can spare a civil word? Sit down." He motioned toward the table sitting before the hearth. "Have a drink. Dinna' fash over Elise. She'll return soon." "Return?" Marcus started. "Where is she?"

Michael sighed and gave him a disgusted look. "Out in the barn with Erin." Marcus left the cottage, the words with Erin ringing in his head as he strode across the meadow to the barn. "I want to thank you for all you've done for my father." Erin's voice filtered from the barn as Marcus neared. "It's nothing," Elise replied.

Marcus paused at the open door. The sound of milk squirting into a pail was followed by a low moo from the heifer. "Nay," Erin went on, "you lifted his spirits. It's difficult, him out here alone." "Why hasn't he moved into the village?" "This land has been worked by our family for generations. He refuses to give it up."

"I can understand—" She cried out in unison with the clang of a hoof against metal. Marcus shot forward but halted inside the door at seeing Elise on her backside in a puddle of spilt milk, the pail on its side beside her. Erin leaned with his arms over the cow's back, staring down at her. "Oh, dear." She looked up at Erin. "I haven't quite got the hang of it."

The young warrior came around the cow and squatted beside Elise. "Are you all right?" His voice betrayed the mirth he clearly felt. "Fine," she replied wryly and extended a hand. "If you please?" He stood, pulling her to her feet. She twisted in an effort to examine the back of her skirt. "You have milk in your hair. How did you manage

that?" Elise gave him a dry look and shook out her skirt. "Perhaps I need a dip in the loch." "Rather cold." "True, but it would be better than this milk. It's getting late and I doubt I'll return to Brahan Seer tonight." "Aye," Marcus said. "You will return to Brahan Seer tonight."

Her head snapped in his direction as Erin whirled. "Marcus, what is amiss?" Marcus looked at Elise. "I am here to take Elise home." "Take her home?" Erin echoed. "Aye. It's late, and Cameron was growing concerned." Marcus wondered at his rapidly increasing ability to lie with such ease.

"Of course." Erin faced Elise and bowed. "Thank you for coming. I know my father was pleased to see you." He stepped back, and Elise turned a calculating eye on Marcus. His body tensed under her scrutiny. "I am not going anywhere." "Nay?" he asked, quelling the tightening of his groin at the cool note of confidence.

"My visit here is not finished." "Nay?" he repeated. She glanced at the pail laying near her feet and Marcus prepared for a quick retreat. "No," she answered, and he relaxed upon seeing her turn her attention, albeit reluctantly, from the pail. "It's late and I have no horse," she said. "The trip home on foot after dark is dangerous."

"Aye," Marcus agreed. Her brow knit in confusion, then her eyes widened. "I will not make another trip with you on your mount." The statement was made with such force that Marcus nearly laughed. "I will lend you a mare," Erin offered. Marcus regarded her and lifted a brow in question. "I promised Michael

dinner." "Elise," Erin put in, "my father will understand." She kept her gaze on Marcus. "You may leave. I will find my way home." His heart beat wildly at the open defiance expressed with such aplomb. He stepped forward and Erin moved to intervene. "Laird." The young man's voice hit like ice water and Marcus looked at him.

"She doesn't know our ways," Erin said. Marcus relaxed and shifted his gaze to her. "If it pleases her to stay, we shall. But only for dinner." She gave a snort, then strode past them and out the door. As the evening wore on, Marcus watched Elise entice them into becoming willing participants in the preparation

of the meal. "You three will not sit idle while I do all the work," she said. "Lass," Michael protested, "what would poor men such as ourselves know of preparing food?" "Enough, I'm sure." She thrust the handle of a knife into his hand. An instant later, she'd replaced the copy of the Sunday Times sitting on the

table beside him with an onion. Michael looked at her as if she were mad but, in the end, peeled and sliced the onion, his lip twitching with barely suppressed amusement. "Erin." Elise placed a bowl of flour, sugar, and cream of tartar in his hands. "You stir the biscuits. Marcus," she said, surprising him, "see to the grouse on the fire."

Marcus obeyed, but turned a moment later when she cried, "Erin!" and saw Erin had spilled flour from the bowl onto the table. Erin looked to his father. "Do not look at me, lad. 'Tis not my fault you can't stir flour without dumping it all over yourself." Elise grasped Erin's hand, trying to show him how to gentle his touch. Marcus jolted at seeing her slender

fingers covering the young man's large hand. Damn it, surely the boy posed no threat? Marcus knew he'd lost his mind. Bloody hell, he was jealous. "Ohh," she said in frustration as more flour went over the side of the bowl. Marcus laughed at the sheepish look on Erin's face. She snatched up the bowl and Michael joined in when she muttered incoherently and

strode to the stove to finish the biscuits. "So, tell me, Marcus," Michael said through his laughter. "How was London?" "The same as always." "And Kiernan?" At the mention of his son's name, Marcus recalled his surprise at how much the boy had grown in the last year. At only eighteen, he towered over most

Englishmen. Referred to as the dark giant, he deserved the nickname. Still, Marcus never ceased to marvel at the fact that one noticed his mother's raven hair and blue eyes when he entered a room. Unbidden, his father's words echoed in Marcus's mind, "Do you not wonder if the sacrifice is worth your son?" "Is it worth it?" he said under his breath. "What's that you say?"

Michael asked. Marcus focused on him. "The lad is doing as well as can be expected, considering." "Considering?" Elise asked. "Aye," he said, glad his father wasn't present to hear his response. "Considering he lives among the Sassenach." At meal's end, Marcus insisted they go. Elise's

expression darkened and she looked as if she might protest, but he caught her glance in the direction of father and son and relaxed when he saw she had chosen discretion over pride. Anticipation surged through him, despite the knowledge she considered him the lesser of the evils. They stood at the door. Elise rose on tiptoes and planted a kiss on Michael's cheek. "Stay off your

wounded leg." "Thank you. You're a good lass." He gave her a bear hug. "No toying with me." The impish wink she gave Michael made Marcus regret ending the evening. She would be more reserved with her charms once they were alone. She went outside where Erin waited with their horses. Marcus clasped

Michael's hands. "Do not wait so long to come back," Michael said. Marcus started to release his hand, but Michael's grip tightened. "Be careful." He glanced in Elise's direction. "The dark has been known to bite."

Chapter Four To be bitten in the dark. Marcus glanced at Elise. Moonlight filtered in dim rays through the trees, making it impossible to distinguish her features atop the mare. He slid his gaze over her figure. It was a shame Erin had a mare she could ride. "Marcus," she broke into

his thoughts. He checked the surge of eagerness that leapt to life. "Aye?" "Why does your son live in England?" "Politics, love." "Ah," she replied. "I see." He was sure she didn't but was pleased nonetheless. "Having your son living amongst a people so different from your own can't be easy."

"Nay?" They moved out of the trees into pale moonlight and he discerned an indulgent smile on her face. "I'm not ignorant of the differences between the Highland life and that of London." "You have been to London?" he asked. "No, but where I'm from can't be much different." "Where might that be,

lass?" "Boston." "Do you miss it?" he asked. "No." He wondered at the quick answer, then his gaze caught on her mouth. What would it be like to kiss those lips? Moonlight glistened on the dark hair that cascaded down her cloaked shoulders. She straightened in the saddle, sharpening the curve of her

breasts. He imagined his hand sliding over them and downward to the soft curls nestled below. Marcus shifted in the saddle to accommodate his growing arousal. Elise shook her head and ran a hand through her hair. What would she do if he took her now? Just when he'd convinced himself she wouldn't resist, his mind snapped to attention at hearing an unexpected noise.

"Do you—" she began. "Hush," Marcus commanded in a whisper. He reined in alongside her. Grabbing her mare's bridle, he pulled both horses to a stop. He dismounted, then hauled her down from the saddle and drew her close to whisper in her ear, "There is a hill just ahead. I'm going for a look. Do not move." He shoved the reins into her hand and slinked into the darkness.

Near the top of the hill, Marcus crouched, then finally went to his knees, crawling the last few feet to the crest. Between the hill where he crouched and the opposite hill, three men on horses picked their way across the rocky ground. Their colors were indistinguishable, but he knew they were Campbells. When he had demanded Shamus's killer be turned over to him, John Campbell

had complied after Marcus and his men threatened to take John in his kinsmen's place. The fact the man was turned over to Peter McKinlay of the Glasgow police for a proper trial made no difference. John Campbell had been furious. The men disappeared into the trees, and Marcus hesitated. The keep was another ten minutes' ride. Could he send Elise on alone?

He remembered Katie MacGregor and cursed. He couldn't gamble with Elise's safety. Marcus quietly made his way back down the hill and, minutes later, distinguished her form in the darkness. "Elise," he called in a whisper. Her head jerked in his direction, but she didn't cry out. After another instant, he reached her side. He grasped

her shoulders and pulled her close, whispering, "We must ride—and fast." She started. "All will be well." He squeezed her shoulders. "You ride with me. Can you stay in the saddle?" She nodded. "Good lass." He reached for the reins She grabbed his arm. "What's happened?" He hesitated. "Campbells."

She glanced at the hill. "So close to Brahan Seer?" "Aye." Marcus vaulted into his stallion's saddle, then extended a hand toward her. Elise yanked her skirts thigh high, grabbed his hand, and jumped nimbly up behind him as he pulled. She wrapped her arms around his midsection. The soft contours of her breasts pressed into his back. He gritted his teeth and

nudged the stallion into a quiet walk, keeping the mare close until they were well out of earshot of the small camp. Then he urged the stallion into a gallop. The men on the castle walls sprang to life at their approach half an hour later. Marcus brought their horses to a skidding halt before the gate. "Open!" he shouted. "'Tis me, Marcus."

The gate creaked open and he drove the horses through before the doors had swung wide. He halted amongst the gathering warriors and brought his leg over the horse's head, sliding from the saddle. "Marshall," he called to the nearest man as he pulled Elise from the saddle, "find Daniel and have him gather twenty men. We ride in ten minutes. Where is my

father?" "I dinna' know," Marshall answered. "Mayhap the great hall?" Marcus started off, then stopped and whirled to see Elise standing where he left her. "Go to your cottage," he ordered then, cursing the powers that be, set out after his father. * * * * Elise glanced at Michael, who rode alongside her. His

gaze remained directly ahead. The rigid set of his mouth indicated he was still angry with her for coming alone to his cottage. Guilt unsettled her. His anger was born out of concern, and he was more right than she cared to admit. To make matters worse, the trip had been a waste. He hadn't received a recent copy of the Sunday Times. Birds abruptly took flight in the trees up ahead. She

gave a small cry. Michael shot her a look that said, Not so sure there aren't any Campbells on MacGregor land, are you? Heat warmed her cheeks and she looked straight ahead. The Campbells had eluded Marcus that night three weeks ago. No further trace of them or their kinsmen had been found since, but Marcus was on a mission to discover who had trespassed onto his land.

As a result, she wouldn't be able to ride more than an hour without encountering one of his men. Damn him. If not for his watchful eye, she would be on a ship to America. The night he fetched her from Michael's, she had decided not to return to Brahan Seer but to continue to Glasgow and chance the first ship away from Scotland. The wanted notice had been in the Sunday

Times dated three weeks prior, but Price could have given up since then. She took a shaky breath and closed her eyes. Price stared back at her from behind her father's mahogany desk at Landen Shipping. MacGregor men wouldn't crawl the land like mice much longer. Soon she would return for the man who had put her mother in an early grave, then quietly took part in her

daughter's murder. Her heart constricted. Steven was a casualty of her making—a casualty she knew Price Ardsley relished. Elise forced back tears. Beware, stepfather. I will return. "Will you come to the great hall?" Elise asked Michael when they passed through the castle gates. "Aye," he replied shortly.

"Michael," she began, but he pulled his horse to a halt beside her and dismounted. He came around to her and helped her from the saddle. "Go on." She hesitated, and his eyes softened. "I'll be along after I have seen to the animals." She pressed a kiss to his cheek. "You're a good man, Michael MacGregor." He shook his head, but

she could see that he was pleased. He limped off leading the horses, and Elise headed for the great hall. At the postern door, she entered and saw Marcus standing near the hearth. He broke off his conversation with the two men who stood with him and glanced over his shoulder. The drawn look on his face snapped into a dark scowl. He started forward. Elise faltered when she saw he meant to

intercept her. His companions disappeared up the nearest staircase and a hum of apprehension began deep in her stomach. Marcus rounded the table and reached the midway point when she blurted, "Good afternoon, Marcus. How are you?" "Where have you been?" he demanded. "I—" She fell back an unsteady step when it seemed

he would ram into her. He halted three feet from her. "I have just returned from visiting Michael." "So I was told," he replied curtly. "Winnie's warning did nothing to deter you?" "Winnie's warnin—" Elise recalled her encounter with Winnie that morning. Good Lord, Winnie had told him she saw her leave. Marcus's eyes narrowed.

"Aye, you remember. Fortunately for you, I only just discovered your absence. Unmanageable wench," he added in a dark voice. "You have your answers," she shot back. "Why bother asking?" "Because I couldn't believe you were traipsing about the countryside." "I was not traipsing about the country. Not that it's your business."

"It is my business—and I will see to it you no' do it again." She ignored the warning bell the definite hardening of his brogue set off inside her head. and said, "You're insane if you think I'll be ordered about." "Ye will do as you're told," he said in a quiet voice that was perversely more unsettling than a shout. "I come and go as I

please, just as everyone else at Brahan Seer." A keen light shone in his eyes. "If you will note, the women are staying close to home." His expression hardened. "At the express command of their men." Elise gasped, then glanced past him, gauging the distance between him and the freedom the kitchen offered. He stepped closer and her temper flared. She raised her

hands to shield herself from his advance and her palms met the unexpected warmth of his chest. She gaped at her fingers splayed across tanned skin where his shirt lay open, and her senses reeled at the raw power in the heavy rise and fall of his chest. "Lord," she whispered, and yanked her hands away. The vague realization that strong fingers had gripped her wrists was

overshadowed by the jolt she felt when Marcus forced her hands back to his chest. Her mind screamed to break free, but the sight of her palms gliding over his dark skin— the need to touch every contour, to know intimately his powerful body—held her rooted to the spot. She tore her gaze from his chest and looked into his eyes. The fire blazing there drew her— commanded her—and she

leaned into him. "There ye are, lad. I was just look—" Elise twisted as Cameron reached the bottom of the nearest staircase. He lifted a bushy brow. She looked back at Marcus. His hold loosened and she snatched her hands away. She retreated, stumbling over her own feet. Marcus reached for her, but she dodged his hand with another unsure step

backward. "I-I must go," she stammered, and fled the room. "Elise—bloody hell!" Marcus's voice echoed off the stone walls as she shoved through the postern door. Elise avoided Marcus that night. Yet his memory persisted. Alone in bed, her cheeks burned with the

recollection of how he had forced her hands against him in a rough caress. Though only a moment passed between them, her senses had taken in every contour as her fingers glided along the unyielding muscle. The hint of brandy on his breath, the hammering of his beating heart, his hard body—with a flourish, she threw back the covers. Cold air crept over her. Yet it wasn't the cold that

made her shiver, but the vision of Marcus's hands touching her as she had touched him. Oh, treacherous body! To be undone by desire. A desire beyond that which drew you to the man you shot, her mind whispered. Elise examined her hands in the moonlight that spilled across the bed from the window above her head. It hadn't occurred to her she

would touch another man as she had Robert. A porcelain doll, Robert had called her, to be admired but not touched. The fact he had suffered her in his bed only long enough to get her with child had proven even her beauty had been lacking. Yet the memory of Robert's scorn didn't stop the leap of her heart at the thought of Marcus. Time grew short— shorter than she had realized.

Dare she wait another week or even a day before leaving Scotland? * * * * Marcus stood on the battlement speaking with Daniel when he spied Elise emerging from the stables astride a horse. "By God," he cursed. "What is it?" Daniel looked in the direction Marcus stared. "Stop her!" Marcus

shouted down to the guards, then hurried down the stairs. Her gaze met his as he leapt from the battlement steps into the courtyard. "Out of my way," she ordered. "Woman, only yesterday you fled from me as if I were an ogre. Now you dispense imperious orders as though you are a queen. Where are you going?" "To find Tavis and box his ears. Then I'll drag him

and his sister back." Marcus raised a brow. "Tired of chasing the little fools all over God's green earth? A pity they won't listen to good advice. Come down from there." He reached to pull her from the mare's back. She slapped his hand. "They purposely sneaked out." "Disobedient brats," he said. Her eyes narrowed.

"Never mind," he said. "Never mind?" she choked. "If I hadn't heard it myself, I wouldn't have believed it." She jerked on the reins. "Out of my wa—" Elise shrieked when he yanked her from the saddle. Marcus brought her face level with his. "Yesterday, you left against my command. Will you attempt to disobey me again today?" Her eyes narrowed. "I

planned to enlist Brady's help in finding the children." "And if he's not available?" "He's the stable master. He is always in the stables." "Aye," Marcus said. "But if he isn't, you will use good sense and return to the keep?" He added before she could argue, "I'll fetch the children." Her eyes lit. "I'll wait while you get a horse." He released her, then

pried the reins from her fingers and mounted. "I will go." "But—" "Elise," he growled, "are you saying I cannot deal with two errant children?" "No-no, of course not. It's just that Bonnie is so little, and Tavis—" Her eyes blazed. "The boy is going to get them both killed." "Why does he take his sister with him?" Marcus

asked. "He doesn't. She's a clever child. She watches, then follows." "Bloody hell," he said under his breath. "She is but seven." Elise laid a hand atop Marcus's hand, which rested on his thigh. "Why does Tavis persist in going out like this? I thought you dealt with his father's murderer." "Revenge is never

satisfied," Marcus replied. Her fingers moved against his and he looked at her hand. His gaze caught on the long, thin scar on the outside edge of her palm. He had noticed it before, had meant to ask her—She snatched her hand back. Marcus looked down at her and smiled softly. "It is all right, love. I will bring them safely home." He brushed a finger across her cheek.

She looked startled and a blush crept up her cheeks. Marcus urged his horse forward, satisfied. * * * * Two hours later, Elise looked up from her seat in the kitchen to see Marcus enter with Bonnie on his shoulders. A general round of praise went up from the women. He gave a gallant bow, very obviously pretending to forget Bonnie, then grabbed

her at the last moment and shoved her back into place on his shoulders. Warmth rippled through Elise at sight of him pausing to pluck slices of apples from a bowl on the counter. She silently cursed her schoolgirl giddiness. Marcus popped a slice into his mouth, then passed one to Bonnie. Elise's thudding heart kicked up a notch when he looked in her direction. He started toward

her and she hastily returned her attention to the potatoes she was peeling. He pulled Bonnie from his shoulders and lowered himself into the chair beside Elise. Bonnie settled on his lap and leaned back in the crook of his arm. Absorbed in her apple, she munched contentedly. "I think we need not worry any longer about Bonnie running after Tavis," Marcus said.

Elise looked to find a lock of hair had fallen across his forehead, making him look very much like a large child himself. She resisted the urge to smooth the lock back into place. Focusing instead on her potatoes, she said, "Why is that?" "Because he won't be taking any more trips." "How can you be sure?" "I told him not to."

Elise sighed. The boy would probably obey without even a whimper. She hazarded a glance at Marcus. He was grinning. Her heart unexpectedly constricted. How would she live without seeing that smile every day? * * * * When Elise entered the kitchen the following afternoon, she frowned at finding the room empty.

Winnie napped in the early afternoon and several of the younger women tended to their families' needs, but Jinny was usually present, starting preparations for the evening meal. Jinny's voice abruptly sounded from the eating hall. "Please, milaird, let me go." "Come now," a male voice boomed, "'tis only a friendly gesture." A round of riotous

laughter followed this statement. "Nay, laird," Jinny pleaded, "I dinna' want you to be friendly." "You haven't given me a chance," the male voice began as Elise retrieved a large cast-iron pan from the ten plate stove located against the wall near the hearth. She crept toward the door leading to the great hall and heard, "I can be verra friendly, given

the proper incentive." From the kitchen door, she saw Jinny, held on a man's lap, twist in an effort to avoid his kiss. Elise stepped through the doorway. "Enough!" The command rang through the stone chamber, quieting the group. The brute blinked. "Who might you be?" "Let her go," she ordered.

He shared an amused look with his comrades, then lifted Jinny from his lap and rose. "Go along, Jinny," Elise said. The girl whirled and fled out the postern door. The brute strode to where Elise stood. He clasped his arms over his large chest and cocked his head to the side. "Now what?"

"You released her. Satisfy yourself you've escaped intact." "I need a replacement." He reached for her. In one long movement, Elise swung the pan, bringing the cast iron pot across his shoulder. Metal met muscle with a loud crack, and the blow sent the sizeable man tumbling to the floor. He lay sprawled on the floor, blinking up at her.

Elise stared down at him. "Try such nonsense again, and the next one will be across that thick Scots head of yours." Howls of laughter filled the room from the brute's comrades. He pushed to his feet. "Seems you need a lesson, lassie." "Nay, Declan," came Marcus's voice behind her. Elise whirled. Marcus caught the hand holding the

pan. She glimpsed Jinny near the kitchen door. "You won't be needing this anymore." Marcus gently worked the pan free of her grasp. She looked down at the pan and released it. Declan grabbed for her, but Marcus pulled her to his side. "No touching the lass." "But you saw what she did. I willna' hurt her." He gave her an appraising look.

"Not really." Elise shot him a recriminating look. "You brought this on yourself," Marcus said. "You aren't taking her side?" "I am." "Nay," he said in clear disbelief. "Aye." He gave Marcus a dubious look, then grumbled as he retreated to his seat,

"Probably not worth the trouble, anyway." Marcus placed the pan on the counter, then started for the great hall. "Marcus," Elise said as he brushed past her. He stopped and turned. "Keep him away from Jinny." * * * * Marcus reached for the pitcher of ale sitting on the table before him and Declan

and refilled their glasses. "How many cattle were stolen?" Marcus set the pitcher back on the table. The man to his right snatched up the pitcher and passed it down the table to the men gathered for dinner. "Thirty or forty head," Declan replied. "Within two months?" Marcus gave a low whistle. "My guess is Campbells." "Aye," Declan agreed.

"But I havena' been able to catch the bastards in the act." "We've had Campbells on our land of late." "The bastards," Declan said with feeling. He picked up a piece of bread from one of the platters sitting before him and stuffed a piece into his mouth. "They get around, eh?" His eyes gleamed. "If it's a fight they're wanting, I'll oblige." "That would be nothing

to scoff at," Marcus said. Declan's own men, plus extended relatives, rallied a force of six hundred men. Add the MacGregor forces, which numbered nearly twelve hundred, and they commanded a small army. "I can't blame you for wanting to put an end to the foolishness," Marcus said, "but a little rustling isn't worth a war." Declan started to reply, but Marcus cut him

off. "War it would be, Declan. There isn't a clan in the district who would pass up the chance to even the score against the Campbells." "And the Campbells hold their own grudges," Declan put in. "They haven't forgiven you for your assault on Assipattle two years ago." Marcus's jaw tightened. They had better not forget. He hadn't forgotten Katie MacGregor. "The next time

they attack a MacGregor woman, I will raze every Campbell keep from the border to Assipattle."

Chapter Five A branch snapped with a loud crack. Elise jerked her gaze onto her companion Allister, then twisted in the saddle and peered over her shoulder. A blur of green and blue plaide shot from the trees at the top of the hill. She gasped. Campbells.

Elise faced Allister. The young man stared back at the Campbells, eyes narrow with fury. Dear God, she hadn't believed them to be a genuine threat, but in an effort to buy time when she didn't return to Brahan Seer, she had asked Allister to accompany her to Michael's. If anything happened to him— He yanked the dirk from the leather scabbard strapped to his horse and snapped his

eyes onto her. "Ride." She kicked violently into the mare's belly. The mare lunged forward alongside Allister's gelding. The sound of pursuing hoof beats bore down upon them. She hugged the horse's neck, urging the mare into a harder gallop down the mountainside. The heaving horses closed in from behind. Elise's heart thudded in unison with the pounding of her mount's

hooves. Tears stung her eyes as she clung to the horse, the jerky rise and fall of the animal's neck jolting her body with each swift stride. Allister's horse nosed ahead and Elise knew the young man was restraining him in order to keep pace with her. From the corner of her right eye, she glimpsed the nose of a horse gaining—then a flash of metal and a man's cry as Allister's dirk found its

mark. The other men shouted and her heart leapt into her throat. She cracked the reins over the rump of the horse, then suddenly pitched forward. She tumbled over the horse's head as the mare hit the ground nose first. Allister shouted her name. The mare somersaulted over herself, and Elise saw the hooves bearing down on her as she and the mare plummeted downhill. The

wind gushed from her lungs, then a splitting pain shot through her head when she thudded to the ground, grinding her cheek into the hard, rocky soil. The blurry figure of the horse landed a few feet away, rolled, then jumped up, and disappeared. A shot sounded. "Bloody animal got away," a man muttered as horses drew up alongside her. Booted feet appeared at

her side. "She's broken her neck," another said. "What of the boy?" another asked. Fingers gingerly probed her forehead, then temples. "Dead." "She's hit the front of her head," said a deeper voice— not Marcus's voice, but who —Sudden pain registered through the fog as she was rolled to her side. She

groaned. "She's not dead," the deep voice said. Fingers ran along her spine. "She hasna' broken her back. She'll live." Arms slid beneath her, then lifted her from the ground and pressed her against a warm body. She opened her eyes, but her blurry vision made out only the wall of flesh her face was

shoved against. "Leave her," said the other. "If we bring her back damaged, it'll be our heads." "Toss the saddle over the mountain." The speaker shifted her in his arms. Pain splintered through her back "Round up the gelding," the man said, "and throw Greig's body over his back. Damn the MacGregor dog who killed him. If he wasn't already dead, I would kill him

myself." Shock reverberated through Elise. Young Allister was dead? * * * * As Marcus approached the village stables, he glimpsed movement through the open door. He yanked aside his steward Harris as a rider burst from the stables. The youth riding the horse seemed not to notice he had forced them from his path and

galloped toward the village. "Youth," Marcus muttered, and entered the stables. "I want Gaelan's, Logan's, Sloan's, and Neal's places finished by summer's end." He strode along the line of stalls. Harris made notations in his notebook. "We can have them patched by month's end." "Patch Sloan's," Marcus said. "The others, replace."

"That'll take 'til Fall, and we will need materials." "Order what you need from Edinburgh. In the meantime, get started on the minor repairs for the other cottages. I want you back in Ashlund by month's end. I don't plan on returning for"— he thought of Elise in his bed, her hands on him—"for some time." Marcus halted at the stall that housed the horse he wanted to examine. "Gerald,"

he murmured to the gelding, who stood, head hanging over the stall door. Marcus rubbed Gerald's nose while he unlatched the door and stepped inside. "Getting along in years, are you, lad? Harris," Marcus called. Harris entered the stall. "What do you think?" Marcus ran a hand down the horse's leg. "He stumbled last week." Harris squatted and

looked closely at Gerald's knee. "A might knobby." Harris stood and walked around the horse, feeling belly and rump as he went. "His coat is dull and"—the steward came around to the horse's head again—"his head is hanging low." "Aye," Marcus agreed. "We'll need two more plow horses then. Alen could last another season, but we will use him for delivery. Don't

order from MacFie. I have another seller in mind. Belgian draft horses." "Aye," Harris replied. Marcus went around the rump of the horse. "Go yourself. There's a Russian Trotter I want you to look at. You can order the supplies while in Edinburgh." "What are ye saying?" A shout from outside the stall intruded upon their conversation.

Marcus recognized the stable master's voice. "Where did they go?" Brady demanded. "Mary didna' g-go with Elise," Craig, the stable boy, stammered. Marcus stilled. "Bloody fool," Brady shot back. "You didn't wonder why she wanted the mare?" Marcus cursed and started for the door.

"W-why should I wonder?" the boy stuttered. "You let Mary use your horse before. How could I know you changed your mind?" "Christ," Brady's voice was hoarse. "MacGregor will whip us both." Marcus lunged from the stall and Craig went pale. Brady glanced over his shoulder and his eyes widened. Marcus strode toward

them. "Hold," he commanded when it looked as if they would bolt. "I had no notion—" Brady began, but Marcus raised a hand. He grabbed Craig by the collar, nearly lifting him from the ground. "What happened?" "Th-they came a-a-and ggo—" "Pull yourself together," Marcus snapped.

Craig swallowed. "MMary and Elise came and ssaddled Brady's mare. I didn't know they were not supposed t-to take her." "Nay?" He gave the boy a hard shake. "How long ago did she leave?" Craig hesitated, and Marcus said, "It is nearly three now. How long?" "This morning. Mayhap eight." "You helped them saddle

the mare?" Marcus snapped. "No! I heard them saddle the horse." He hesitated. Marcus's lips tightened. "Sleeping?" Craig dropped his gaze. "What did they say?" Marcus demanded. "Elise was g-going to Michael's." Marcus shoved Craig from him. "Saddle Alexis." "That devil?" Harris blurted.

"Alexis," Marcus repeated. "I will take even the devil's help." Ten minutes later, Marcus galloped out of the stables. He left the path as soon as he found a reasonable place to drive the stallion down the steep hills, cutting off more than half the time Elise would have taken to reach Michael's. The resolve he had made to whip her to within an inch of her life died

when he reached the cottage to discover she hadn't been there. "I'll come with ye to find her," Michael said. He turned and started toward the corner containing his bed. Marcus glanced at Michael's leg. The splint was gone. "There's no time to saddle your horse." "There is," the older man said, his voice firm. "It will take but three minutes."

Marcus started to argue, but Michael strode the last two paces to his bed, saying, "We can waste time arguing if you like, but I'm going." He snatched up the coat lying on the chest at the foot of the bed and turned to Marcus. "Go on ahead. I can follow. Dalton will give Alexis a run for his money." He gave Marcus a hard look. "If there is trouble, you'll be needing all the help you can get." He strode past

Marcus and out the door. Cursing, Marcus followed. Three minutes later, they rode. Marcus yanked Alexis up short and leapt to the ground when he at last sighted Elise's tracks. "They went down here." He squatted, examining where the mare had lost her footing on the mountainside. "Aye." Michael dismounted.

"The mare threw Elise." Marcus motioned at the wide swath of crushed ground dented from the mare's landing. He rose, moving slowly forward, ignoring the tracks he knew had to be Campbells as his gaze scanned the ground. He squatted again and carefully ran a finger over a smattering of dried blood on a rock. Marcus looked onto the turf churned

up where riders had pulled up hard and fast alongside the place Elise had fallen. He traced the tracks with his fingers, noting the change in weight when they had dismounted. "If she were dead, they would have left her," Michael said. "Or they could have kept the body as a bargaining tool. Where is the saddle? It fell off." Marcus scanned the

surroundings but found no sign of the saddle. "They probably threw it down the mountainside or took it," Michael said. Marcus stood. Had he not taken the shortcut, he would have noticed the tracks forty minutes ago. "Fetch Johnson from Brahan Seer. He's our finest tracker. I'll follow the tracks." Marcus grasped his horse's pommel, then froze at

the sound of a low moan. "Did you hear," he began, but Michael was already starting down the hill at a near run. "Michael," Marcus shouted. The fool would break his leg again, or worse. Marcus raced after the old man and reached him just as a body came into sight beyond the nearest fir tree. Marcus's heart thudded in the instant before his mind registered that it wasn't Elise

but a man. Allister, he realized. The young man's father had recently died and Allister had taken over the land his father had tilled. Marcus dropped to one knee beside him. Allister stared up, eyes dark with pain. "What happened, lad?" Marcus asked. He licked his lips, then rasped, "Campbells." Fear knifed through

Marcus. "Elise?" he asked. "Fell from her horse," Allister managed. "There was no body, MacGregor," Michael reminded him. "Allister is alive, so is she." Marcus nodded and forced calm as he made a quick assessment of Allister's injuries. His arm had been gashed and a bruise had begun to form on his forehead, but no blood

gushed from any part of his body. "Can you move?" Marcus asked. "My leg… broken," he said. Marcus nodded. "Hurts like the devil, I wager." Allister winced with what looked like laughter at the obvious understatement. "Can you manage until help arrives?" he asked. A steely glint lit the

young man's eyes. "Leave me a pistol and any Campbell that comes near will die." "That's the spirit," Marcus said. "I got one." "What?" "My dirk," the boy said. "You did well." Marcus rose. "Michael will leave you his weapon. If I overtake the bastards, I plan to use my pistol." Marcus hurried back up

the hill with Michael close behind. Marcus mounted his horse. "You'll reach Brahan Seer in ten minutes. I doubt any Campbells stayed behind, but leave the boy your knife as well." Michael nodded. Marcus gave the stallion a kick, and the beast lunged forward. "MacGregor!" Michael shouted. Marcus brought Alexis

around in a sharp turn. "Dinna' do anything foolish. We'll be no more than an hour behind. If— when—you find the lass, wait for us." "Make it forty minutes," Marcus said, and dug his heels into the belly of his horse. * * * * Elise blinked. The darkness around her gave way to formless shadows that

shifted before her eyes. She jostled and groaned at the pain that spiked in all directions through her body. "Awake, eh?" The male voice crashed through her head like a wave against a cliff. She lay in the arms of the speaker, her back against a muscular chest. A distant memory hovered. "Mar—" her voice cracked. Then in a half whisper, "Marcus?"

He grunted. She went rigid. This wasn't Marcus. Elise closed her eyes, forced back the queasy upheaval of her stomach, then opened her eyes again. All before her looked as if she were looking through a fog. She squinted at the blurring shadows. Slowly, images formed, and she realized she was staring down at the moving ground. They were riding—her mind registered

the horse's rhythm beneath them. The horse's rhythm. She had been riding—hard. The crystal-clear memory of the mare bearing down on her when she'd been thrown caused her to shudder. Then she remembered Allister. Tears sprang to her eyes. The young man had died because of her. His mother— Elise choked back a sob and a wave of dizziness wrenched

her stomach. She forced her breathing to slow. At last, the nausea subsided and she shifted. Pain lanced through her head, but she squinted at the blur that had come into view on her right until the figure of a man riding came into focus. He stared unabashedly. Elise ignored the tremor his stare elicited and looked past him, skyward, where dim points of light showed

through thin, grey clouds. She shifted again and found herself staring up at the jut of a square jaw. Above that, the bluish hue of moonbeams filtered through clouds. The pain relaxed to a dull throb and her stomach settled. The clouds parted and the moon blazed in her vision. She squeezed her eyes shut, but registered its position and estimated the time as just past midnight.

"There's been no sign of MacGregor," her captor said. Marcus would have expected her to be at supper tonight. He might not notice her absence, but Allister's mother would notice his. "The horses need rest," the other man said. "They're spent." "We stop up ahead," the man who held her said. "Leave them saddled and tether them."

A few minutes later, they halted. Elise's captor handed her down to the man who had stared at her. He pressed her close to his chest. The hand wrapped around her legs slipped beneath her skirt. She thrashed. Hot spikes of pain fingered out through her body. His hand rubbed her outer thigh. She gave a weak scream. He laughed, lowering his head toward her mouth. "Rory!" her original

keeper shouted, and took her into his arms. Elise fought tears as he turned and her heart lurched when she caught sight of several more riders dismounting. She kicked and slammed a fist down onto her captor's chest. "Cease," he growled. "Fighting will do ye no good." She yielded, too spent to do anything else. He strode to

a cluster of medium-sized rocks, then set her down against the rocks and returned to his horse. Rory approached, horse's reins in hand. Elise tensed. Their gazes remained locked until he disappeared from view behind her. Another man followed, then the next and the next, and she realized the horses were being tethered near where she lay. Her keeper approached

carrying a tartan and a small pouch. He stopped beside her, shook out the tartan, and squatted, settling the blanket over her. He regarded her. "We left MacGregor land long ago. You are in Campbell territory and wouldn't have a chance in hell in these hills. You cannot see, but 'tis barren country. Nothing for miles." "Why—" she stopped, seeing the implacable set of

his jaw. He reached into the pouch and produced a biscuit. He handed it to her. Elise took the food and watched him stride to where his comrades sat huddled on smaller rocks. She looked at the biscuit, then sniffed it. To her surprise, she detected no mold. A small nibble and her stomach rumbled. She pulled her knees up and reached for her foot. She unlaced one

boot, took it off, then did the same with the other. She arranged the boots beside her and took another bite of the biscuit, while edging herself into a more prone position. She took another, larger bite. "We should bind her hands." Rory's voice abruptly broke the silence. "Touch her and I'll kill you," her captor said through a mouthful of food. A pause followed, and

Elise shivered as much from the threat as the cold. She pulled the tartan up over her shoulders, closing her eyes. "You wouldn't be wanting her for yourself, would you, William?" Rory demanded. "She isn't yours, Rory." "What if she escapes?" "She was knocked half senseless," William replied. "She couldn't manage it." "I know women who

could," Rory retorted. "She wouldn't know which way was home." William paused. "She's asleep." "Easy pickings," Rory commented. Grunts of approval from the men sitting in the group sounded. "Mayhap not so easy." William shifted, the sword strapped to his hip scraping against rock.

Elise shrank beneath the tartan and ate the last bit of biscuit. Finally, the men's voices quieted. A moment later, she heard a nearby rustling. She peered past a corner of her tartan and discerned the forms of men lowering themselves to the ground. She recognized William, still sitting with his back to her. A close snigger told her Rory was among the men

bedding down nearby. Her stomach wrenched. She glanced heavenward. Dawn was no more than four hours away. MacGregor territory lay southeast of Campbell land. They had ridden approximately fifteen hours. She could reach Brahan Seer by tomorrow afternoon. Marcus might not welcome her back, but she had to make sure he knew who was responsible for Allister's

death. She thought of the wedding band sewed to the lining of her shift. She had planned to go from Michael's to Glasgow and catch the first ship away from Scotland. But Allister deserved recompense just as much as Amelia and Steven. When snores at last told Elise the men had fallen asleep, she crawled from beneath her blanket. The biscuit had settled her

stomach, but the trembling deep within persisted. "Where are ye going?" She stopped at the sound of William's voice and twisted to look over her shoulder. He still sat on the rock, back to her. "I-I need a moment of privacy." "There are guards," he said. "What?" "Out there." He motioned

with his head to the blackness beyond their camp. Her blood chilled, but she forced her body into motion and crawled around the rock. * * * * Marcus tensed at sight of a figure moving in the shadows where the Campbell horses were tethered. "Did you notice any of the guards returning to camp?" he demanded of Michael, who

squatted beside him on the hill from which they watched. "Nay," Michael whispered. Marcus strained to make out the figure's form in the moonlight, but the hill cast too dark a shadow on the valley. "God damn it," he muttered. "If anyone has given away our presence—" The loud neigh of a horse broke the quiet. "What the bloody hell?"

"The horses," Michael hissed as the Campbell horses bolted. Shouts rose, and the Campbells sprang up and after their mounts. "What are they up to?" Marcus yanked his gaze back onto the figure in the shadows near the horses. He leaned forward in the saddle and was riding to the left of the camp. "Take two men and bring back that rider," Marcus said.

"Be careful not to alert the others to our presence." Marcus turned his attention onto the Campbell men running through the trees in an effort to retrieve their scattered horses. Then waited. The light sound of a boot treading close came from the darkness and Marcus jerked his head around. "Laird," one of his men said, "come quick. We have

the rider." He pulled his breacan close and backed away from the crest of the hill, jumped to his feet, then hurried downhill at a near run. At the bottom, he broke through the circle of his men, hand on the hilt of his sword. "Nay! Laird, stop!" came a chorus of low voices. Marcus felt his sword arm jerked back, but he saw the prisoner even as someone

grabbed his other arm. He went stock still. "Elise?" "Yes," she replied. Even in the shallow light of the cloudy darkness, he could discern her drawn expression. "Are you unharmed?" She smiled, her mouth quavering a little. "I have a blazing headache, but I'll live." Marcus started forward, but two of his men seized his

arm. "Release me." He yanked free, then took two steps and halted before her. "You are the rider?" "Yes." She swayed. Marcus caught her to him. Elise clutched at his shirt, burying her head in his chest. She didn't move for a long moment, then took a shuddering breath and mumbled against him, "If I could sit down."

He whipped off his cloak and wrapped it around her. Marcus slipped an arm beneath her and she threw her arms around his neck when he lifted her into his arms. He knelt and gently settled her in a seated position on the ground. Her arms remained tight about him for a moment, then finally relaxed. Marcus straightened, his gaze falling on her bare feet. "Where are your shoes?"

She glanced from her feet back at him. "I took them off. What woman attempting an escape would go barefoot?" She gave him a hopeful look. "Sensible, don't you agree?" "Sensible?" he repeated. Elise abruptly grasped her stomach. Marcus held her head to the side as she wretched violently. The convulsion ceased and he wiped her mouth with the

tartan. She sat up. "Had to happen eventually," she croaked. "Will you be all right?" She nodded but averted her face. "I'm much better." Marcus stood. "Michael, you, Brian, and Finn remain here. Get the horses," he said to the remaining men, then looked at Elise. "I assume you freed their horses?" She nodded.

"Marcus," Michael said. "We stumbled upon two Campbells. They were the guards west of the camp. Seems we were wrong. They had moved. Probably the only ones who had horses." "Dead?" The older man nodded. Marcus's men returned with the horses. He took Alexis's reins and mounted, then said to Michael, "It may take some

time, but I won't leave before catching every last one of the bastards. If so much as a shadow flickers, get out." Michael nodded, and Marcus reined his horse around, his men following. * * * * Marcus stood, legs apart, staring down at Elise. She sat on the couch, head bowed, her gaze on the carpeted floor of his library. He took a deep breath and seated himself

beside her. "A day on the trip home and I held my tongue," he said. "Then a day here at Brahan Seer. You're well enough now to answer to me. What in God's name were you doing?" "I promised Michael I would come." "Michael would not hold you to any such promise." She lifted her chin and met his gaze. "I didn't go

alone, as you know." "You took a boy, Elise." Pain flickered across her face. "I will not make that mistake again." "Nay, you will not, but that doesn't explain why you insist upon going. Bloody hell, Elise, no one but you is a risk-taker." She stiffened. "I am sorry you had to come for me—" "Sorry I had to come for you? You little idiot. It wasn't

the coming for you that you need be sorry for, but the fact you nearly got yourself killed. It's a miracle you survived the fall from your horse." Marcus shifted his gaze to her right cheek where the light yellow of a severe bruise peeked out from beneath her thick hair. He was well aware of the gash that lay hidden beneath her hair. She had taken great pains to hide the wound. What else did she

hide? "What of the Campbells, Elise?" She frowned. "I don't understand why they took me." "Nay?" She started. "I'm not a complete fool. I understand their intentions. But why make off with me? Why not attack me there?" A mental picture of them attacking her there rose on a

tide of a fury that forced Marcus to his feet. He strode to the sideboard, poured a whiskey, drank it in one gulp, then set the glass down and faced her. He leaned against the sideboard and folded his arms across his chest. "They like to savor their victims." Her lips parted in a soft gasp. "Did you think otherwise?" he asked.

"The beady-eyed one, Rory, would have taken me there, but their leader, William—" "William?" Marcus interjected savagely. He started toward her. Her eyes widened when he closed the gap between them. He yanked her from her seat. "What did William want, Elise?" "He stopped Rory from…" "Did he now?" Marcus

shoved her onto the couch, pivoted, and returned to the sideboard. He poured another drink and emptied the glass as he had the last, then faced her again. "It didn't occur to you he didn't want a woman who was used up?" Her cheeks reddened, then her expression hardened. "There had been no sign of Campbells for weeks. How long am I supposed to let your fears rule me?"

"Until I say otherwise. Just be glad I don't tie you to your bed." Her eyes narrowed. "What sort of threat is that?" "The kind I will enforce with relish." Elise jumped to her feet. She swayed slightly. Marcus started forward, then stopped when she fisted her hands at her sides. "Ooooh." She drew the word out in a long frustrated

breath. "You are an arrogant knave, Marcus MacGregor, not to mention foul natured. Does it give you pleasure to threaten me?" "Threaten you?" He gave an exasperated laugh. "I haven't given you even a small sample of my power." "I advise you to keep such threats to yourself," she said through clenched teeth. "God help me, I should turn you over my knee—

which is what I planned in the beginning." Elise took a step back and he advanced. "In fact, if you have any defense, say your piece now, for you shall receive the only recompense your sex allows." "I have nothing to tell you." She retreated another pace. Marcus halted. Bloody hell, were his suspicions right? "What are you hiding,

Elise?" Her eyes flashed but not before widening enough to tell him he'd caught her off guard. "What could I possibly —" "You're a fool if you expect me to believe you simply want to visit Michael. We both know he is well. Who do you meet when you leave Brahan Seer?" Her eyes lit with indignation.

Feminine fury. Had he hit the mark? Had she taken a lover? The blood pounded in his ears. "You would risk death —or worse—for a common liaison?" Her expression flashed to hauteur. "Any assignations I have are none of your concern." Relief rammed through him. Womanly pride drove her, not fear of discovery.

Why, then, the insistence on going to Michael's? She turned, but he caught her wrist and whirled her around. "What are you hiding?" Elise clenched the hand he grasped. "Is it so hard to believe someone might care enough about another human being to take a risk?" "You expect me to believe you are so foolish?" She gave a harsh laugh.

"Believe what you will." "I believe you are lying." "Why bother coming for me, then?" For the thousandth time, Marcus saw Elise as Katie MacGregor had been when she was found raped and beaten. He yanked Elise to him, his mouth crashing down on hers. She shoved at his chest, but he only tightened his arms around her and roughened the kiss. He

thrust his tongue inside her mouth and felt her body stiffen in surprise then slacken against him. Her breath quickened. Marcus remembered the couch only a few feet away, but she abruptly wrenched her mouth free. He hugged her close, burying his head in her hair. "Elise," he whispered hoarsely. "When I think—" his voice caught. "They had their hands on you." He

hugged her even closer. "Never again." He kissed her neck, placed gentle kisses behind her ear and down to where neck met shoulder. She gasped, and he lifted his head to look down into her wide eyes. He lowered his mouth to hers, tenderly this time, moving slowly until her lips softened beneath his. She gave a sudden small gasp, then pushed away, her hand

going to her lips. He focused on the action. "Ohhh," she drew out the word on a soft breath. Marcus stepped toward her. She backed up until the chair before his desk barred her retreat. He halted, his body inches from her. She gripped the top of the chair, then stepped aside, shoving the chair toward him. Marcus reached for her. The chair hit his shin. Pain shot through his

leg, but he stumbled forward, grabbing for her. His fingers closed around thin air as she dashed for the door and disappeared down the corridor.

Chapter Six Movement to his left caused Marcus to jerk his head in the direction of the woman emerging from the kitchen into the hall. She was not Elise. The woman's brown hair had fooled him for an instant. He shoved his chair back, rose from his seat, and strode to the kitchen. He

stepped aside for another serving maid as she hurried past into the hall with a plate of food in hand. He scanned the kitchen. Elise wasn't among the women serving the evening meal. By God, she was avoiding him. Why she was avoiding him, he knew; how she had managed to do so for a day and a half, he suspected could be answered by Winnie, who,

oddly enough, was also absent. He turned and headed for the postern door, wincing at the ache in his knee. Once in the quiet of the brightly lit courtyard, he veered north toward the cottages. "Marcus." Marcus glanced over his shoulder at the sound of his father's call and stopped at sight of the MacLaren warrior walking alongside Cameron. They halted in front of

Marcus. "Brian here has brought a message from Declan." Cameron looked at the man. "Go ahead, lad." "Declan wanted ye to know there's been Campbells on MacLaren land." "When?" Marcus demanded. "Three days in a row now." "You haven't caught any of them?"

Brian snorted. "The bastards are getting better at running." "They are," Marcus agreed, then asked, "You will stay the night?" "Aye." "Good. Be ready at first light. I'll travel back with you. Have some supper." He motioned toward the great hall, then looked back at his father. "Cameron, I wish to speak with you." Marcus

waited until Brian was out of earshot, then said, "Have Elise moved into the castle while I am gone." Cameron showed no surprise at the request. "What reason should I give?" "Ask if she plans on living with Winnie the rest of her life." His father gave an approving look. "I will put her in the west wing's private suite."

"Nay," Marcus said. "The east wing, the room nearest mine. Cameron frowned. "'Tis hard on you, her sharing a cottage with Winnie, but to put her in the lady's quarters next to yours is going a bit far the other direction." "The guest room, Cameron," Marcus said. "Not in the adjoining room—at least, not yet." "At least, not yet?"

Cameron exclaimed. Two men passing turned their heads at his raised voice. He glanced at them, then leaned in closer to Marcus. "That's a bit obvious, don't you think, lad? A man doesna' flaunt his mistress." Marcus raised a brow. "Aye." His father blinked. "What? Are you saying what I think you're saying?" "I am."

Cameron rubbed his chin. "I have never known you to take advantage of a woman under your protection." "I have no intention of doing so now," Marcus replied, though he couldn't help the mental image of how much he would relish taking advantage. Cameron regarded him. "I thought you would not marry again. 'Tis ten years

since Jenna died." "I hadn't planned on remarrying." "You have a son and, at your age, you need not marry." Marcus gave a short laugh. "I needn't do much of anything, Father." Cameron gave a single nod. "Your marriage to Jenna wasn't one of love." His mouth turned down wryly. "You always were the

politician. You should have told King George to go to the devil when he insisted you marry the wench." "I have no regrets," Marcus replied. "And I shall have none now." "Tiring of the demimonde?" He gave a slight smile. "'Tis not the same." Cameron grinned. "I thought you would want the lass, but I hadn't realized how

badly." Marcus exhaled. "No one is more surprised than I." * * * * Marcus and his men dismounted in the outer bailey of the MacLaren holding. He tossed his horse's reins to a MacLaren guard and waited. A few moments later, Declan entered the bailey. Marcus stepped forward and caught Declan's hand in a

firm grip. "Good of you to allow us entrance." Declan's eyes twinkled. "Aye, considering your treatment of me when last I visited Brahan Seer." "I recall your night ended well." Declan grinned. "Aye, a fine night it was. What brings you here? Have I ruined the MacGregor lasses for you? Josephine cried when I left." "I heard she got rather

feisty," Marcus remarked. Declan laughed. "Aye, she's a sassy one, but nothing like your Ceasg." Marcus gave a rueful grimace. "Elise's temper is much like the Highland mermaid's." "A resemblance? If the lass were a Highlander, she could grant the mythical three wishes." He gave Marcus a shrewd look. "Perhaps she has already granted yours,

eh?' Marcus snorted. "I suspect granting any wish I have is the furthest thing from her mind." "Ahh," Declan intoned. "You haven't exactly endeared yourself to her?" "Not quite." "Mayhap, you should have let me teach her a lesson after all." His brows lifted. "Break her in, so to speak." "I would have had no

sympathy for you when she broke you." Declan grimaced. "Aye, well, 'tis best, then, that I leave you with the taming." "God help me," Marcus said under his breath, then gave him a serious look. "I hear you have had Campbells on your land." "Aye." Declan led Marcus toward the great hall. "Elise was kidnapped by the Campbells six days ago,"

Marcus said. "Kidnapped?" Declan gave Marcus an appraising look. "You don't look broken up like you were with Katie. Is the lass…?" "She is well, though only by the grace of God. We need to talk." Marcus shook his head at the serving girl who offered to refill his dinner plate, and she moved to the man sitting to his right.

"They never touched her?" Declan asked. "Nay." "Can you be sure?" "Bruised a bit, but nothing like Katie." "Aye, well," Declan said, "I suppose if she wasn't in the same shape as Katie…" "She wasn't," Marcus replied. "Which is damned lucky for the entire Campbell clan." Declan leaned back in his

chair. "Too close for comfort." "They were within half a mile of Brahan Seer." "Jesus, they've grown bollocks of late. I am surprised they didn't do the deed right there." His mouth twitched. "You don't suppose they suddenly got religion?" He laughed, giving the table such a slap it rattled the plates. "Nay," Marcus replied,

his mouth twisting into a grim frown. "But they did meet their maker." "Good. You have been too soft with them in the past. Aye," he went on when Marcus started to interrupt, "ye made them pay for Katie, but there have been other times." Declan reached for his mug and took a long draught. He set the mug on the table while watching the serving

woman who approached from the far end of the table. She looked up and Declan winked. His gaze remained on her as she passed. He took another drink of ale, then turned back to Marcus. "They've been spending an unusual amount of time on MacGregor land of late." "So I have noticed." A pause followed, and Marcus said. "You have something on your mind?"

"'Tis interesting they made off with her. One would expect them to take care of business and be done with it." "I'm not one to question good fortune," Marcus said. "But you are." Declan's expression sobered. "What do you know of the lass?" "She's American, as you know. The ship she and her husband sailed on went down in a fire. Shannon and Joshua found her washed ashore at

Solway Firth." "She is no serving wench," Declan commented. "Nay." "Have you any idea why she is acting the part?" Marcus gave a single shake of his head. "Nay, but I will find out." * * * * Hooves pounded on moist ground, the roll of their thunder cutting in heavier strikes as they neared the

castle. Swirls of thick fog whipped upwards and into the night as the gates of Brahan Seer swung open by an unseen hand. One after another, men forced their way in until the keep overflowed with the blue and green of Campbell plaide. Fear lodged in Marcus's throat at sight of his enemies' raised swords. "Buadhaich!" came the battle cry.

A shudder shook Marcus. The devils' weapons stabbed through the grey of the murky fog. Pleas for mercy resounded. Still, Marcus remained rooted to the spot, watching until the last MacGregor fell. A Campbell glanced at him, the first to acknowledge his presence. The man smiled, stepping on the head of a vanquished enemy and grinding the skull with his

foot. As if magically freed from unseen bonds, Marcus lunged at him. They crashed to the ground, Marcus's grasp closing around nothing. He leapt to his feet, seizing another Campbell. He, too, vanished. One by one, they disappeared each time he grabbed their necks. His mind sought for purchase within the ghostly battle, his senses reeling with the echo of laughter that rose from the

curling mist. Finally, every Campbell gone, Marcus stood, his breath coming in labored gulps. Torn and twisted bodies lay scattered about him—the ruin of his clan. A cry broke the silence. He whirled. Elise lay on the ground, a trembling hand raised to him. Marcus rushed to her side. He fell to his knees, lifted her head, and cradled it

in his lap. Tears streamed down his cheeks, splashing onto her lips. With gentle fingers, she wiped a tear from his cheek. "Shh," she murmured. "It's not your fault." Her hand fell away and her eyes closed. He tightened his grip but she vanished, causing him to tumble forward. Her garments twisted in his hands. He shoved and kicked, trying to dislodge himself

from the fabric. Leaping up, his fingers closed around a post— Marcus stood in darkness, gasping in heaving gulps of air. His grip on the bedpost tightened as he looked about wildly in the darkness. No moon shone overhead. No bodies lay around him—a soft chime sounded—a clock. A shudder reverberated through him and he fell to his knees on the

stone floor of the bedchamber. The cold of the floor against his knees contrasted the sweat that beaded his forehead. A drop trickled along his hairline. A dream. But Elise's kidnapping had been no dream. Had she not escaped… Marcus bowed his head, the cold barely noticeable to his naked body, and he touched the tear trailing down his cheek. The clock chimed again.

Four gongs this time. His heartbeat had slowed and his body chilled. Fingers still wrapped around the bedpost, Marcus pulled himself onto shaky legs. He gathered his kilt from the floor near the foot of the bed and wrapped the plaide around his waist. Brahan Seer lay but half a day's ride away. Marcus paused. A dream. To return home before

visiting the young MacFarlene chief would be foolish. A dream. His heart rate increased. A dream where everyone he loved had perished. Where Elise had perished. He grabbed his belt from the chair, then halted. He had left the keep well-guarded. He would wake his man Kyle. One day for Kyle to ride to Brahan Seer and make sure

all was well, then meet them tomorrow at the MacFarlene holding. * * * * Marcus studied the men gathered in the MacFarlene great hall, then returned his attention to Langley, the young MacFarlene chief, who stood beside him at the massive hearth. Marcus set his glass of scotch on the mantel. "No sign of Campbells on your land?"

Langley nodded to one of his men. "Nay." He finished his scotch, then placed the glass next to Marcus's. "If I had, they would be buried— and King George would never find them." Marcus well remembered Langley's uncle, Cory MacDonald. The MacDonalds had not forgiven the Campbells for the Glencoe massacre over a hundred years ago.

MacDonald blood flowed as hotly in Langley's veins as did MacFarlene blood. "Ye have a spy, MacGregor." Marcus's attention snapped back to the young man. "What?" "How else do you explain their success in creeping about your land? You say Shamus was killed in Montal Cove. That isna' MacGregor land. I remember

hearing about Katie MacGregor. She was in MacLaren territory when they attacked her." Langley regarded him. "Before this last incident, how long since they were seen on MacGregor land?" "Two months." Marcus stilled. "The night I escorted Elise back from Michael's." "The same lass they made off with?" Langley grunted. A young woman

carrying several bottles of whiskey wound her way through the crowd. "Brenda," he called. "Bring me one of those bottles, lass." She turned and hurried forward. He took a bottle from her tray. She glanced at Marcus. "Off with you," Langley said. With a flash of a smile for Marcus, she sauntered away.

Langley opened the bottle, filled their glasses, then set the bottle on the mantel. He took a large drink before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Two months ago, you say?" "Aye," Marcus replied. "What came of it?" "Nothing. They were gone when I returned." "A shame, and a little strange, wouldn't you say?" Langley finished the drink,

reached for the bottle, and refilled his glass. "They may have heard me passing by and ran, or luck might have been with them." "Aye," Langley agreed. "They're a cowardly lot. But considering they returned, that makes the situation more strange than lucky." He shrugged again. "Think what you like, but you have a spy." He lifted a brow. "Mayhap it's

you they want?" "They had their chance when they abducted Elise. They knew I would pursue them yet didn't lay in wait for me." Langley grunted. "The pleasures of the flesh are a powerful distraction." Marcus's jaw tightened. "Dinna' lose your temper," the young chief said. "'Tis an observation, nothing more."

"An astute observation," Marcus muttered, then added, "Someone who is reporting the comings and goings." "What they are reporting, I can't say. But 'tis clear they are hunting. I wager it's big game. 'Course, we will fight alongside you." Marcus smiled to himself. The clans feuded far less in these modern times, giving a restless Highland heart such as Langley's no

outlet for its brand of justice. "You will stay until tomorrow morning and train?" Langley motioned toward the men who tonight sported with whiskey and lasses, but tomorrow would train hard. "Aye," Marcus replied, the memory of Kyle's report that all was well at Brahan Seer fresh in his mind. Langley gave an acknowledging nod, then

grabbed the bottle and strode toward several men who vied for the attention of two kitchen maids. Marcus watched him go. A lot of Langley's father Glen lived in the boy. Glen had refused to give up the old ways and he had fought English injustice the only way he knew how: midnight raids. Marcus smiled, remembering the chief's delight in slaughtering the

sheep of an offending lord, then leaving the animals on the lord's doorstep. As a young man, Marcus had ridden with him three days from MacFarlene territory on just such a raid. Unfortunately, Glen went on one too many clandestine rendezvous and was felled by a young baron on the English coast. Marcus understood the battle cry that had driven the old chief. However, in their

modern age, it was bad business to consider teaching the Sassenach the error of their ways. Suddenly, Marcus wearied of politics and war. Even wealth and power hadn't exempted the MacGregors from the English disdain for Highlanders. Still, Ryan MacGregor had done well in choosing a woman of courage. Thank God for a good woman. His loins stirred

at the thought of another good woman. Desire swept through him, bringing his body to the now-familiar ache. Marcus left the revelry. He fell into bed, his body hard with the memory of Elise's touch. In his mind's eye, he saw her wrap slim fingers around his shaft. He reached down, his hand closing over hers. She called to him, her song as sweet as that of any Ceasg. He

groaned. Slowly, and with great precision, she pulled him into murky depths where willowy shapes tortured his body and held him hostage long into the night. * * * * Elise sighed when Winnie shoved the book across the kitchen table toward her. "Nay," Winnie shook her head, "I canna' do it. I have no brain for it."

"Ridiculous," Elise snorted. "Now, calm yourself. We aren't finished." "Aye, we're finished." Winnie jumped from her chair and began pacing. "We're finished for good." She rubbed her temples as if to drive the frustration from her mind. "But you were doing so beautifully. Come," Elise entreated, "sit and rest." The housekeeper paused,

eyes narrowed, but flung herself into the chair, nonetheless. Elise repressed a smile when Winnie picked up the offending book and glanced in the direction of the fire. "Winnie—" "Dinna' try to talk me into any more reading." She dropped the book on the table as if horns had sprouted from the cover. "'Tis no use. I haven't the brain for it."

Elise raised a brow. "Surely you're not afraid of a little effort?" The housekeeper shot her a shrewd look. "Isna' that and you know it." Elise shrugged. "It's not for me to judge. You will be the one to explain to your friends why you cannot read to them as promised." "You think you're mighty smart, eh, lass?" She snatched up the book.

Elise leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. "The next two lines, please." "O, woo-would, or I," she began slowly, "had seen the d-ay that tre-tra—" She snorted in frustration. "Treason," Elise prodded softly. "—treason thu-s cud—" "Could," Elise corrected. "Could sell us, my au-ld grey heed—" Winnie grunted, then repeated with

vehemence, "head," then again slowly, "had lien in c-lay wi' Bruce and loyal Wallace," she ended with a flourish. "Excellent. Read half an hour tomorrow and the next day. Then we'll review those pages." Winnie hesitated. "Don't worry." Elise smiled. "In no time at all you will have everyone in the village begging you to read

for them." "Well, I don't know about that," Winnie replied, but her nonchalant attitude didn't hide the small smile at the corner of her mouth. "I do," Elise said with conviction. "So do I," added a deep voice from the kitchen doorway. Elise twisted in her chair to stare at Marcus He lounged against the

doorframe. "I believe, milady," he addressed Winnie, but never took his eyes off Elise, "if your teacher has her way, you will never have a moment's peace." "Nothing will have changed then." Winnie sniffed, then rose. "No need to go," Elise said too quickly. "Aye, there is." Winnie gave her a knowing look as

she brushed past. "Good night to ye, Marcus," she said on the way out the door. "You're back," was all Elise could say. "Aye, love. 'Tis my home, remember?" He pushed off from the doorframe, his gaze holding hers as he walked forward. He stopped by her side. The embers in the fire crackled, causing her to jump. "The fire needs more wood."

He gave no indication he'd heard, then turned and went to the hearth. Marcus grasped the poker and stoked the fire. "How have things been during my absence?" "The same." She prayed he didn't read into her answer the fact that every day he had been away she had recalled the look on his face when he'd burst through his men and saw her after she escaped the Campbells, and the

whispered words "Never again" when he pressed her close… and the kiss that had followed. Marcus reached for a log from the pile beside the hearth. He bent to one knee, his kilt falling across the calf of the bent leg. She tried tearing her gaze away. Instead, her attention fixed on the play of muscle in his shoulder as he tossed the log onto the fire. Here was the

reason behind his command to move her into the castle. If she were nearer him, how long could she resist his advances? Damn him. He had further hampered her movements. In the three days he'd been gone, she had yet to leave the castle without someone marking her movements. Had he enlisted all MacGregors as spies? Marcus unexpectedly glanced back over the

shoulder she was staring at. Her heart pounded wildly in the moment he studied her. How transparent were her thoughts? He rose. She tensed when he leaned the poker against the wall and turned. "Elise," he began as he approached, "I handled things badly." He halted before her. "Well, you were a bit…" She gave him a rueful look. "I haven't been a saint." Her heart lurched at the

understatement, then fluttered at the thought of confessing the truth. What would he do if she threw herself into his arms and told all? Marcus smiled. "No matter." He extended a hand. "Come, love, walk with me." She stared at his outstretched hand, held steady for her. The gentleness there belied the strength. "'Tis all right," he coaxed. "I promise not to

bite." Elise looked up at him. "Are you in the habit of making promises you cannot keep?" He reached for her and she resisted the urge to slap his hand back. * * * * Marcus stood behind Elise on a hill overlooking the village. Lights dotted the valley, shining in haloed rings from the cottages. A balmy

breeze blew, yet Marcus saw her shiver. Marcus resisted the urge to wrap an arm around her and stepped up beside her, fingers laced behind his back. He turned his attention to the flickering lights below. "What do you think of the Highlands, lass?" She said nothing for a moment, then, in a quiet voice, "The Highlands are… unusual. Despite all odds, life

thrives here." She laughed softly. "At least, the Highland notion of life." She slanted a smile in his direction. Marcus stilled, afraid the spell would dissolve. "Highland life is full and lush." She returned her attention to the valley. "Yet, some would say, like a woman, it changes at a moment's notice, suddenly wild and furious." Did he detect a sensual note in her voice? Marcus

tightened the grip on his emotions. Now wasn't the time to test her. Yet a voice from within asked, If not now, when? "The rugged wilderness here is frightening," she went on. "Yet, at the same time, it is compelling to the extreme." Elise motioned with her head at the broad expanse before them. "Those hills lure with a beauty uniquely their own. They call to the soul, drawing

it into their mystery like…" Marcus leaned toward her before catching himself. Inhaling a deep breath, he said in a hushed voice, "Like a lover." She looked at him, her expression open. "Yes, you've captured the heart of it." Not yet, love, he thought, but soon, very soon. "How did you come to be in Scotland?" Surprise flickered on her

face, but instantly relaxed into the even reply, "Surely you know I was washed ashore when our ship went down in a fire." "Aye. I mean, why were you in Solway Firth?" Elise frowned, and he added, "Sailing from America to London, you would pass the south of Ireland. To reach Solway Firth you must pass north of Ireland, then head south between Ireland and

Scotland. The route would add a week or more to your journey." Surprise flashed across her face. "A week?" "Aye." Her expression clouded and she murmured, "Amelia." "What?" She started. "What?" "Who is Amelia?" Elise looked out over the valley. "Amelia was my daughter."

"Was—Elise." She shook her head. "Odd, isn't it? I sail from America for London, am shipwrecked—barely on Scottish soil—and here I am, miles away, in the Highlands." "Strange, indeed," Marcus murmured, sending up silent thanks for the huge difference in that short distance. "And why come here to Brahan Seer?"

She gave a small laugh. "I had nowhere better to be." "Are you happy?" Can you be happy without husband and child? "Your father has been kind. I liked him the moment I met him." "What did you think upon first meeting me?" At the startled look on her face, he cursed his foolish curiosity. "Why, milord," the title

fell in teasing accents from her lips and her eyes widened with mock gravity, "I thought you were the fiercest warrior I'd ever had the misfortune to meet." Marcus blinked, then threw his head back and laughed, for he remembered her assessment of his sword —not to mention his open shirt. "Sit with me." He took her hand, settled her on the

ground, and lowered himself down beside her. Marcus turned his gaze onto her and gave a soft smile. "Tell me about Amelia." Pain flickered across her features and she lowered her gaze. When, at last, she spoke, her words were flat. "Amelia was six years old and very ill. We were traveling to England to see a specialist. I should have known she wasn't strong

enough for the journey—I did know—but I couldn't bear the thought of never again looking upon her sweet face. "Selfish," she muttered. "When Amelia smiled…" Elise's breath quickened and Marcus tensed, recognizing the anxiety in the sudden rise and fall of her breasts. "The corners of her eyes crinkled and her eyes sparkled as only a child's can." The moon illuminated Elise's face,

revealing the part of memory that couldn't be conquered, and a pain that would never wholly die. "She died three days before the fire." "Three days?" Marcus exclaimed. "Had you not gone by way of Solway Firth —" "Yes," Elise agreed in a voice far removed from Scotland—from him. "Yes." "Why take that route?" She shrugged. "We

encountered bad weather and must have been blown off course. I didn't concern myself with the route." The bitterness in her voice said she now counted that a mistake. Marcus kept to himself the knowledge that a storm couldn't have taken them to Solway Firth had they not been north of Ireland to begin with. "You can't know what it

is to watch your child die." She looked down into her lap where her hands lay clasped. "We could do nothing. When Steven heard of a specialist in England, we set sail immediately. I thank God she died in peace. Facing what came afterwards would have been far worse." "And the others on the ship?" Marcus asked. "We traveled on a barque, three-masted. Not a

large ship, with only a crew of eleven. Then there was Steven, R-iley and I." "Riley?" Marcus repeated. "My husband." "Who is Steven?" "My brother." Elise stared out over the valley. "The commotion woke me in the middle of the night. By the time Steven came for me —" "Steven, not your

husband?" "No. By the time Steven got to my cabin, smoke filled the corridors. He dragged me up on deck. I was sure we wouldn't make it; the corridor was so thick with smoke." "No chance the ship could be saved?" "They tried. Flames lapped up from the galley and the sails were ablaze. The wind blew hard. A storm had kicked up and the sails

flapped furiously. Oh, how the wind can howl." "Storms are common in the sound," Marcus said. "What started the fire?" She grunted, a low but distinctly disgusted sound. "Likely an unattended lamp." She gave a mirthless laugh. "I knew what Steven meant to do. But, damn him, he knew me just as well. He gave me no chance." She looked at Marcus, her gaze burning into

him. "Threw me overboard without so much as a byyour-leave." "Indeed?" "Damn you, one and all," she said under her breath. Marcus cleared his throat. "He managed a boat, I take it?" "What?" she answered on a distracted note. "Oh, yes." All bitterness had vanished from her voice. "I should have warned him, but I never

dreamed—" her voice broke and Marcus realized she was weeping. "Elise, love." She shook her head, turning away. He sat up and reached for her. She tried to stand but couldn't manage her skirts quickly enough. He hauled her onto his lap and hugged her close. "I would like to go home," she said into his shirt between quiet tears.

"Love," he whispered, "you are home." "Amelia was gone," she said as if not having heard him. "But Steven—" Some minutes passed. At last, her soft cries subsided and Marcus felt her chest expand with a deep breath. "A piece of him died each day with Amelia. When she —" Elise fumbled in her pocket. Marcus calmed the nervous search by placing his

hand over hers. She stilled. Marcus brushed the tears away with a thumb. "I should have allowed Amelia to die in her own home," Elise said when he'd finished. "Steven would still be here." "Steven suggested the doctor? He must have been as anxious as you to see her recover." "Of course," she answered crossly.

"Could you have stopped him?" "He couldn't have gone without us. Yes. I could have stopped him." "Somehow, I doubt that." "He was a determined fool," she cut in, "but had I told him it was best—" "He would have carried you onto the ship." "Damnable men," she muttered. "What of Amelia's

father?" "He did not survive." That Marcus knew, but he found it strange that Elise's story didn't include her husband. Too painful, he realized, and said, "I'm sorry, lass." "Fate is strange," she murmured. "You can't blame yourself for their deaths," Marcus said. "You would be amazed

at what I can do." Marcus felt a tremor pass through her. He hugged her closer. "Dinna' say more." "Seems a bit late for that," she remarked in a dry tone. He sighed. "Lass, you could remain here quiet all night and I wouldna' complain." She looked up at him. "It is not… common—for a brother and sister, that is—

but Steven was my friend. I shall never find that kind of trust again." His gaze fell on her left hand and the spot where he knew the scar was on her palm's edge. She hadn't escaped the fire completely unharmed. He took the hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed the scar. He placed the hand around his waist, then slid a hand into her hair and tilted her head upward.

"Are ye sure?" he asked. Her mouth parted with quiet surprise. He had promised himself he wouldn't touch her. Yet his head lowered and his mouth covered hers of its own volition. Elise offered no resistance when he parted her lips with his tongue. He tightened his hold, the fire in him hot. Still, he kept the kiss soft, his tongue thrusting gently in her mouth. She

relaxed. His groin tightened and he ended the kiss. He sighed. His only choice now was to take her home or take her there.

Chapter Seven "Are you sure?" The memory of Marcus's warm breath brushing her skin as he whispered the question made Elise shiver. She squinted up at thick morning sunlight streaming down between heavy storm clouds. Daylight brought no more clarity than had the

sleepless night. She paused at the rock, which marked the halfway point on the hill between Brahan Seer and the village, and sat down. She worked the boot from her left foot. "Infernal pebbles." She turned the boot upside down and shook the irksome item free. The pebble hit the stony ground with a click. Elise strained to see it, then,

shaking her head, stuck her foot in the boot and tugged. Her heel caught on the heel grip. She tugged harder but to no avail. "Good Lord." She jumped to her feet. She stomped her foot on the ground. The heel jammed even harder on the heel grip and her foot turned, tumbling her to the ground. She sat for a moment, surveying the skirts thrown up around her

thighs, and sighed. Drawing her knees to her, Elise tugged the skirts down over her legs. She propped an elbow on one knee and placed her chin on the heel of a palm. Foolish endeavor. All the peevishness in the world wouldn't change the fact she wanted him—more than that —hungered for him. Last night had passed in snatches of erotic dreams with Marcus suckling her breasts, then

sliding down along her belly and finally between her legs. Even in better days, Robert hadn't moved her as Marcus had by simply holding her close as he had last night. Her pulse quickened. She had nearly blurted Robert's name. How many more days—and nights —could she hazard with Marcus MacGregor? * * * * Marcus glanced at the

hearth as he entered his library. The fire burned low but cast enough light so he could make his way through the shadowy darkness to his desk. He lit the candle sitting there and seated himself before an open ledger. Despite the hour, sleep eluded him. He laughed. "It wouldn't be the taste of Elise's lips that has your mind churning?" he mused, but knew good and

well his cock and not his mind was doing the churning. He forced his attention to the numbers. Sometime later, Marcus glanced at the hearth, abruptly aware of a chill in the room. The fire had all but expired. He rose and went to the fireplace. He threw a log on the dying embers and stoked them. After hooking the poker in the holder, he lowered himself into the

armchair beside the hearth. Stretching his legs out before him, he crossed ankle over ankle and relaxed against the cushion. Heat slowly worked its way up his body. He closed his eyes and dozed. Marcus jerked awake, aware someone had entered the room. He glanced at the mantel clock. Just after two. Who would invade his library at this hour? The shadow cast by the intruder's taper glided

across the wall then came to a halt. He heard the clink of the brass holder being placed on his desk and twisted to peer around the edge of his chair. His body tightened when he saw the prowler was none other than the Caesg responsible for his sleepless night. Elise stood, wrapped in a plaide blanket, perusing the books on the shelf behind his desk. His gaze dropped to the

shoulder laid bare where blanket and chemise had slipped to her arm. She shivered and drew the blanket closer about her shoulders as she glanced in the direction of the hearth. Their eyes met and he grinned. She started. Her eyes flashed. "It's extremely impolite to spy on people. Or didn't your mother teach you manners?" "Aye, love." He grinned

even wider. "But you made such a pretty picture standing there, I couldna' help myself. 'Tis verra' unfortunate you spied me so soon." Her eyes narrowed in the instant before she whirled and headed for the door. Marcus jumped up and, in four long strides, stepped in front of her. "Now, lass," he drawled in an even thicker brogue, "you wake a man in the

middle of the night, then run away so quickly? 'Tis no' verra' bonnie of you, and you are a verra' bonnie lass." Elise gave him a dry look. "I warn you, Marcus MacGregor, step aside." He grinned. She was in a fit all right and he felt the desire to see her at full sail. "Come, love," he said, "what will ye do?" She didn't answer and his curiosity piqued at the

realization that the wheels in her head were turning at a furious rate. "Do you plan to stand there all night?" she finally said. He raised a brow and her expression darkened. Marcus gave a hearty laugh. "Do you expect me to capitulate to so easily?" He laughed even harder. "Lass," he shook his head, "you are—" Marcus halted when she started

forward. He reached to grab her shoulders, thinking she meant to escape after all, then realized her intention even as her foot snaked around his boot and yanked. He fell to his backside with a heavy thud. Stunned, he blinked up at her. He suddenly realized how Declan must have felt. Perhaps she did need a lesson. Her gaze darted to the door.

"Should have thought of that before you laid me on my arse," he said. "You have no chance of getting past me without my bringing you to the carpet with me." Marcus looked down the length of her. "A prospect which has its appeal." She leapt back, but he caught the edge of her blanket and yanked it free. He took in the bare arms, the hint of rosy nipples

beneath the thin night rail, and the shadow cast by the curls between her thighs. Elise glanced down at her scantily clad body. She flushed and an answering flash of heat coursed through him. "This is unkind of you," she said. "Unkind?" Marcus cocked a brow. "You dare send me to my backside then lecture me on the etiquette of

kindness?" "A gentleman does not strip a lady of her clothes." Marcus stood and tossed the blanket well out of her reach. "I have not stripped a lady of her clothes—yet." Her brow knit and he read genuine indecision in her expression. She took a step back. Lesson learned, he thought, and started for the blanket, but the sight of a

slow smile on her lips halted him. "Why, Marcus, you fraud. Trying to teach me a lesson." His heart rate kicked up. Had she no idea what her soft tone did to him? "Love," he scooped her to him, "'tis not the lesson I would teach ye, given the chance." To his surprise, she didn't pull away but wrapped her arms around his neck. "What

lesson would that be, milord?" He slid a hand up her back and wrapped his fingers in her soft, brown hair. He brought his mouth slowly down on hers. She sighed. He deepened the kiss. She pressed closer. He cupped her buttocks and backed her against the door. He tugged at the strap of her nightgown, pulling it down over her arm. Elise moved her fingers in

light movements along his arm. Marcus groaned. "You keep me on the precipice between heaven and hell." He bent and took a taut nipple in his mouth, drawing on the pink bud through the fabric of her nightgown. She gripped his shoulders and arched toward him. Marcus ran a flattened palm up her thigh and across the roundness of her buttocks. He

continued down to the underside of her knee, then lifted her leg over his hip. The nightgown rucked up and he rubbed the hard length of him between her legs. She gasped. He trailed moist kisses from neck to ear. She softened against the motion and contours of his body. He became aware of her breasts pressed to his chest, the nipples brushing in tantalizing strokes as he

rocked gently against her. "Elise—" Marcus froze at hearing footsteps in the hallway. She opened her eyes, confusion mingled with the clouded look of desire. He yanked her away from the door and stepped in front of her as it swung open and a warrior entered. "Forgive the interruption, laird." The man kept his gaze on Marcus's face. "A rider

from Drummond territory is demanding to see you. Says it's important." Fear displaced passion. Drummond. At this hour? Had the old chief finally died? Marcus gave the man a curt nod. "See him to the hall." The door closed and Marcus faced Elise. Her cheeks were flooded with color. She had pulled the

nightgown straps back over her shoulders and her arms were crossed over her breasts. He reached for her, but she stiffened. "You have a guest waiting," she said. He clasped her arm and directed her the few steps to where the discarded plaide lay on the carpet. Marcus released her and bent to pick it up. He settled the blanket around her shoulders,

drawing her close once again. "One more stolen moment, aye?" he asked. Marcus wrapped his arms around her, pinning her arms between them, and kissed her. She breathed through parted lips, and he answered the invitation with a slow thrust of his tongue. He gently drew out her passion until she trembled with the final tracing of his tongue along her lips. He forced himself

from her. Her head fell to his shoulder, and relief mixed with the lust still churning in him. He waited, unwilling to part even for his old friend. She raised her head. "I should go." Marcus walked with her to the stairwell that led to her chambers. He gave her a final kiss on the cheek. "Go, love." He urged her up the first step. He watched the sway of the blanket until she

disappeared around the bend, then turned on his heel and headed for the great hall. * * * * Distant footsteps sounded in the hallway outside the drawing room where Elise sat. She looked up from the book she was reading. Surely Marcus hadn't returned from the fields so early? She hadn't seen him since last night. If he were to catch her here alone… would

they finish what they'd started? The footsteps stopped in front of the door. Her heart thudded. The door swung open and a petite woman, smartly dressed in a burgundy velvet riding habit trimmed in gold, stood in the doorway. "Have tea served here," the woman ordered Mary, who stood behind her. The woman concentrated on the gloves she peeled from small,

elegant hands. "I am hungry, as well. The ride this morning —" She looked up, her gaze on Elise, and she halted the tug on her glove. No warmth shone in the woman's blue eyes and Elise wondered that such porcelainlike beauty should be marred with a statue's coldness. The woman's expression turned appraising. "Do Brahan Seer's servants habitually lounge in

the drawing room during the day?" "Just myself," Elise replied. The woman's gaze sharpened. She stared for a moment, then waved a dismissive hand at Mary. "Thank ye, Lady Margaret." Mary bobbed a curtsy and backed out of the room, leaving Elise alone with the stranger and an increasing sense of

apprehension. Elise rose, hugging the book to her breast. "You are American." Lady Margaret yanked off the remaining glove. Elise halted. "I am." "How long do you think you can hold his interest?" Elise frowned. "What—" She froze. "Let us get to the point," Lady Margaret said in crisp tones. "He is a man, and there

are certain things we must accept in men." Anger heated Elise's belly, but she replied in a cool tone, "Perhaps we have different standards." Surprise flickered across Margaret's face, then disdain settled on her features. "I have seen it before and with women possessing far more charms than you." She raised a brow. "You are… twentysix, twenty-seven, perhaps?"

Despite the fact Elise knew it made no difference— tomorrow she would be gone —the barb hit its mark. Marcus never asked her age. He, too, probably thought her younger than her thirty years. Margaret raked her eyes over Elise in an unladylike fashion. "Men are intrigued by the new and unusual." She waved her hand in the same dismissive manner she had with Mary. "That will change

once we are wed." Elise couldn't prevent a gasp. Margaret lifted a brow. "He did not tell you? Pity. You can't be surprised he kept the news from you, of all people." Elise narrowed her eyes. "Marcus is no liar." "He hasn't lied. The news has not yet been announced. We are awaiting permission from King George." Margaret

regarded her with a curious intensity. "You don't believe me." She laughed, the sound filled with disdain and, to Elise's surprise, pleasure. "Tell me," Margaret said, "do you like the way he slides his tongue over your lips?" A chill pooled in Elise's belly. "Or perhaps you find the way he runs his hands along your body more memorable. He is a man who enjoys

touching a woman—and let us not forget the way he moves in a deliciously languid motion—" "What do you want?" Elise demanded. Margaret slapped her gloves against her hand. "You have nothing I want. His fancy will pass soon enough —as it always does." Then, under her breath, "Though it doesn't please me he has so openly taken his pleasure

while I have been away." While I have been away. A clear explanation for why Marcus had avoided the issue of his wife-to-be. "He has not taken his pleasure, madam," Elise shot back, remembering all too well how he had nearly done that very thing just last night. How she was just hoping it was he who came looking for her to take his pleasure. Surprise shone on

Margaret's face. "Why, there must have been many opportunities…" Her eyes widened. "You mean to marry him." Elise jerked. "What?" "You think if you make him wait, he will marry you. My girl, Marcus does not marry out of lust. The Marq —" "It is quite evident love is not the driving factor in your marriage," Elise snapped.

Margaret's eyes blazed. "My congratulations, madam. I wish you, Marcus, and all his paramours a happy union." Elise hurried past her toward the door. "How dare you, you little —" Elise yanked the door open and slammed it behind her as she stepped into the hallway, leaving Margaret's final words behind. She stumbled forward. Tears

clouded her vision. She reached out a hand to the wall, steadying her progress, and discovered she still held the book. She gripped it tighter and took one wobbly step after another until she reached the stairs. She started down, but the sound of voices echoing up the stairwell stopped her. Cameron. She turned, scanning the hall for some form of escape, then remembered the small alcove

around the bend she had just passed. She dashed up the stairs and down the corridor. Elise reached the alcove and yanked back the tapestry, nearly falling headlong inside. She straightened, then turned and backed up, stopping only when her shoulders touched cold stone. Sliding to the floor, she dropped the book and hugged her knees to her chest. "Nay." Even from the

distance of the stairwell, Cameron's voice boomed within the narrow confines of the corridor. "'Tis likely he won't be back for several days." "I hadna' realized he meant to stay so long in the fields," came Daniel's voice. "He believes the Campbells mean to do mischief during the harvest." "The guards around the wall remain on double

watch," Daniel said. Elise held her breath as they passed the alcove. Cameron sighed. "His thirst for revenge is likely never to be quenched. He cannot forgive them for taking Elise." She stifled a gasp. Winnie's words unexpectedly rang in her mind. "…it was Marcus who made it clear threats against his own would be met with an iron fist."

The male voices faded down the hallway and Elise rose to her feet. She tiptoed to the tapestry and drew the fabric back a fraction. She glanced left then right in the empty corridor, then stepped from the alcove and hurried to the stairs. Memory of the previous night rose in even more vivid detail than when she'd faced Margaret. If not for the arrival of Marcus's guest, she

would have given herself to him. Heat flared in her cheeks. He had held her intimately. So intimately that in her dreams he had caressed her, taken each nipple in his mouth as he slipped a finger between the wet folds of her womanhood. She had never experienced a dream so real… so erotic. Her vision blurred on the stairs and she slowed. In her dream, it hadn't

been him who took her, but she who had willingly parted her thighs, then pulled him between them. She had wrapped her hand around his swollen rod and teased him— teased herself—by rubbing the tip against her throbbing sex, then between the folds before finally guiding him inside her. Elise halted and collapsed back against the wall, her breath heavy and the throb between her legs as real

now as it had been in the dream. The cool of the stone penetrated the thin fabric of her servant's dress. She forced her breathing into a more natural rhythm, then started down the stairs again and didn't stop until she reached her room. Elise closed the door with a soft click. Her knees shook and she suddenly doubted her ability to cross the few paces to the bed.

"Fool," she hissed. She had almost spread her legs for him. A stab of longing startled her. Dear God, the deed would have meant nothing to him. The unexpected sound of footsteps racing down the hallway jerked her attention to the door. The light tread belonged to a woman and she approached at a run. Elise darted from the door, headed for the screen in hopes of

ducking behind the barrier. The footsteps halted outside her bedchamber and the door burst open before she reached the screen. "Thank God!" Mary cried. Elise whirled. "You must come quickly!" Mary dashed across the room and grabbed her arm, then tugged her toward the door. "What in God's name is

wrong?" Elise wrenched free. "'Tis Lady Margaret," Mary wailed. "She's in an awful fit and is sure to beat Jinny." Elise pushed past Mary and rushed from the room, along the corridor, then down the steps into the great hall. She raced across the great hall, coming to a skidding halt in the kitchen. Jinny cowered in a corner with Margaret

standing over her. "What is the meaning of this?" Elise demanded. Margaret turned. "Cease this nonsense," Elise ordered. Margaret stared, slackjawed. "Close your mouth," Elise snapped. "In polite circles, it is considered rude to stare." Margaret's mouth twisted into a gruesome frown. "How

dare you?" "What right have you to terrorize this household?" Margaret's eyes gleamed with malicious satisfaction. "I have every right—as you know." "Don't count your chickens before they are hatched. I venture Marcus will not take kindly to your actions." "Marcus again, is it?" Elise recognized the

jealousy in the woman's eyes and gave her a calculated look. "Jinny," she addressed the young cook who still cowered, "fetch Cameron." "Cameron?" Margaret's brows rose in a mocking manner. "Yes. Jinny, I saw him upstairs only a few minutes ago. He was probably on his way to the library." "Stay where you are," Margaret threatened.

Jinny's wary glance darted from Margaret to Elise. "It's all right," Elise urged. Jinny shot a sidelong look at Margaret, then eased a foot to the side. Lady Margaret took a step toward the girl. Elise slid between them. "Don't take your petty jealousy out on her." Elise stepped so close Margaret

was forced to look up in order to maintain eye contact. "Are you such a coward you will only fight those who don't have the power to fight back?" Margaret raised her hand and swung, palm open, for a hard slap. Her gaze flicked past Elise and her eyes widened as a much larger hand intercepted her palm before it hit its intended mark.

"Enough, lass," Cameron commanded softly. "I—" she began. "Never mind," he said. "Marcus isna' here. 'Tis best if you go." Margaret looked as if she would say more but lifted her skirts and headed for the door. Cameron looked at Elise. "Are you all right, lass?" She kept her gaze on Margaret's retreating form

then, as Margaret stepped from the kitchen to the great hall, Elise started forward. Cameron stayed her with a firm grip on her arm. "Whoa, lass. Where are you going?" She shook his hand from her arm. "Why did you interrupt?" "I heard you tell Jinny to fetch me. I would think you were glad for my timely arrival."

"A timely arrival would have been three seconds later." "But she would have struck you by then." Elise saw Margaret open the postern door. "Correct." "You wanted her to hit you?" "Yes." "Why?" Elise looked at him. "Because then I could have hit her back."

* * * * Elise stopped before Winnie's cottage. Her sharp rap on the door quieted the evening crickets and she entered without waiting for an invitation. Winnie looked up from where she sat at the table. "What's wrong?" "Something must be wrong?" Elise asked. Winnie rose and bustled to the door. "Supper is

finished and you are visiting me. If you had good news, you would have told me then." Winnie prodded her into a chair at the table, then turned to the hearth and grabbed the kettle from the fire. "Have some tea." She set a cup in front of Elise, picked up a tea strainer from the basket sitting on the table, and plopped it into the cup. Winnie filled the cup with hot water, then did the

same for herself. She replaced the kettle over the fire, seated herself across from Elise, and stared, an expectant look on her face. Elise dipped a finger inside her cup and fiddled with the tea strainer so that it bobbed in the water. "I haven't spoken about my life before Brahan Seer." "Nay." "Perhaps that was unfair."

A silence drew out between them before Elise said, "The details no longer matter, only that I lost everything. I began again here," a tremor rippled through her at the lie, "but now I see myself entangled in a mess no better than the one I came from." "A mess?" Winnie repeated. Elise smiled gently. "By now, all of Brahan Seer

knows what happened today between me and Lady Margaret." "Aye, though no one was surprised by such mischief from Lady Margaret." Elise lifted a brow. "Indeed?" "Aye," Winnie said. "She's a bitch." Elise blinked, then couldn't help laughing. Winnie frowned. "Well, she is."

Elise released a breath. "That doesn't change the truth… or the fact I must leave." "Leave?" Winnie snorted. "Surely not because of Lady Margaret?" Elise leaned forward on the table. "Winnie, he is to marry her." The older woman's shocked expression said she knew nothing of the betrothal. Elise experienced a sense of

relief she hadn't hoped for. Winnie hadn't been a part of the deception. "I don't believe it," Winnie said. "No?" Elise asked. "Because you don't like her?" "Nay." But this time, the denial held less conviction. "I am going. Tomorrow." Winnie's brows snapped together. "So soon? Mayhap you should wait just a little while, give Marcus a chance

—" "A chance for what?" To win me over? The very thing she couldn't allow. For she would submit, then the leaving would only break her heart all the more. And she would leave. For Amelia. For Steven. And because he had lied to her. "Marcus is away," she said. "It's better I go now." "You plan on returning to America?"

Elise nodded. "I suppose you can manage there as well as here." "I need your help." Winnie gave her a wary look. "I dinna' like the look in your eye." "I must leave early if I am to reach Glasgow before nightfall. Leaving so early is sure to raise suspicion. If you and I go together to the village—"

"Lord save us." Winnie rolled her eyes heavenward. "You know it will take trickery." "Oh, it will take trickery." "If you know another way?" "There is a secret passage leading outside the gates." "A secret passage? Where does it emerge?" "Near the gate." "That might work," Elise

murmured. Winnie unexpectedly shook her head. "Nay. 'Tis a bad idea." "Why?" "If you are caught, the jig is up. We will do as you said and go early. Only you cannot go all the way to Glasgow alone. Peter will go with you." "Peter?" Elise's heart thumped. "I won't risk another person's life."

Winnie's face softened. "Peter is no green boy. He's my niece's cousin, a seasoned fighter and a crack shot. And," Winnie paused for emphasis, "he knows nothing of Marcus's, er, desire for you to stay." Elise hesitated, and Winnie added, "He would have returned home anyway. Glasgow is not far out of his way. Trust me, he can get you there safely." Elise nodded, despite the

knot in her throat. God help her if she miscalculated again.

Chapter Eight Marcus stared at the warrior standing before him in the great hall. The anticipation he had felt only an hour ago had given way to a throbbing in his head that threatened to incite him to violence. "You found her buying a ticket for an Australian-bound packet?" he

managed in an even voice. "Nay, laird," the warrior replied. "Ah," Marcus said, "I forget, you intercepted her at the pawnbroker's shop." "Not in the shop, exactly," he hedged. Marcus glanced at his father, who sat in his chair sipping ale as though they were discussing nothing more important than the weather. Marcus looked back at the

warrior. "Where, then?" "She, er, had left the pawnbroker—you see, Daniel reasoned we couldna' just go inside and take her. She would bring all of Glasgow down upon us." "Indeed," Marcus murmured. "She near did—or would have, had we not dragged her into the alley." "Dragged her into an alley, you say? This alley was

deserted then, a place you could have done with her as you wished?" The man swallowed. "Aye." "Angry, was she?" Marcus realized he had clenched his hand into a fist. The man looked sheepish. "You can't blame the lass, she thought—" "Aye," Marcus interrupted savagely, "I know what she thought. The little

fool is damned lucky that isn't what happened. You are certain no Campbell accosted her?" "Not so much as a scrap of Campbell plaide was found between here and Glasgow." "How far behind were Elise and Daniel when you left them?" "They were riding fast— not so fast she couldn't keep up," the man added quickly,

"but I rode harder. I left them at early light." "By all rights, they should be arriving anytime," Marcus calculated. "Aye," the warrior agreed. Marcus jerked his head toward the postern door in an indication the man should leave, and he hurried from the great hall. Marcus faced his father. "What the bloody hell was she selling—and

Australia? I thought Winnie said she was bound for America." "'Tis strange," Cameron agreed. "If anything has happened to her…" Cameron's gaze remained steady. "Ye heard what John said. She is well." He motioned to the seat beside him. "Sit, have an ale, and wait." "By God, she had three

days head start." Marcus slammed a fist down on the table. "Anything could have happened." "Not three, less than two. 'Tis been three days since she left. I can see how you would confuse the time, but our lads took after her night before last. Elise and Peter's tracks indicated they rode slow, and our men rode fast. Did you not comprehend John's report?" Marcus opened his

mouth to retort, but Cameron added, "Our men lagged but two hours behind them yesterday afternoon. I sent more men to meet them. They are on their way home and willna' dare dally." "How could you have let her go?" "I didn't let her go." Cameron regarded him. "You plan on making her a prisoner?" "Would you have her

alone on that ship?" Marcus demanded. His father's mouth thinned. "We should beat them both." He glanced in the direction of the kitchen where Winnie worked. "Aye," Marcus said, agreeing with his father for the first time since he'd returned home an hour ago. "Beat her, I will. If I don't get the chance, I will take it out of your hide, Father."

Cameron took a large swig of the ale sitting before him, then set the mug on the table. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "The lads will return with her soon." Marcus shot his father another unforgiving look. "So you have said a dozen times the past hour." His father's expression hardened. "I realize you are upset, lad, but you aren't

giving me enough credit. Do you believe I would sit here drinking ale if I thought she was in danger?" Marcus hesitated. "She will arrive safe." Tramping feet approached the postern door. Marcus whirled as the door opened and Daniel entered, followed by half a dozen men. "Where is she?" Marcus demanded.

The men parted to reveal Elise, head downcast, hair damp. Marcus frowned, his first thought was Why had she not been given a tartan? But she raised her head and the fire in her eyes ignited an answering fury in him. He strode to her, grabbed her by the shoulders, and began shaking her. "What do you think you were doing?" He shook her harder with every word.

"Marcus!" Cameron's sharp voice cut through the haze. "You'll shake her to death." "Or mayhap shake some sense into her." He shoved her away from him and raked his hand through his hair. "Laird," Daniel said. Marcus looked at Daniel, who tossed a small pouch to him. He caught it and the clink of coin rattled inside the leather.

"'Tis Elise's—" Marcus jerked his gaze onto his captain. "The money she received from the pawnbroker," Daniel finished. Marcus loosed the tie and emptied the coins into his palm. He counted five sovereign. A small fortune. He looked at Elise. "What were you selling?" She remained mute. He turned to Daniel.

Daniel cleared his throat. "A wedding ring, according to the bill of sale." Marcus watched dumbfounded as Daniel produced a piece of paper from within his sporran. He strode to the table and laid the bill of sale on it. Marcus looked at Elise. "A hefty sum, even for a gold band." She lifted her chin a fraction. "How did you find

me?" He slipped the coins back into the pouch, then tossed it on the table. "The MacGregor can track you, remember?" Her cheeks colored and he knew she remembered that day in the meadow when she had threatened him with the MacGregor fury should he harm her and the children. 'I tracked these children. You think he cannot track you?' she had said.

He broke eye contact. "Go change into dry clothes." Silence followed and he looked to see she hadn't so much as twitched a muscle. Marcus narrowed his eyes. "I warn you, Elise, do no' try my temper any further. Go upstairs. Now." She remained motionless. He lunged forward and scooped her onto his shoulder. Whoops and cheers rang throughout the room.

"Marcus MacGregor!" She thrashed. He answered with a hard squeeze to her legs. The men responded with more raucous laughter. Applause followed as he strode across the room and bounded up the stairs. She twisted in his grasp, but Marcus ignored the futile effort until he reached her bedchamber, where he kicked the door open and, in three paces, tossed her onto the

bed. She landed on the mattress and immediately made to scramble to her knees. Marcus leapt forward, one knee on the bed, and planted his hands on each side of her. "Get away!" she shouted as she scooted backwards. She fell back against the bed when he brought his face to within an inch of hers. "If you do not change into dry clothes, I will do it

for you." Elise remained motionless, but he caught the flicker of uncertainty in her eyes. He pushed away from her and stood. She crawled off the bed, her gaze on him, as she fetched the dress hanging in the closet. She faced him. Marcus waved toward the screen in the corner. "Kind of you," she retorted.

"Do not try me," he growled. "Try you?" Elise snorted, then stepped behind the screen. "All I want to know is why?" he demanded. The rustling of clothing paused. A long moment of silence passed, then she said, "Exactly my question." Marcus started to reply but threw himself, instead, onto the couch opposite the

bed. A moment later, she appeared from behind the screen. "Why did you leave?" he demanded. "Why did you bring me back?" He frowned. "I didn't. Cameron did. I wasn't aware you had left until an hour ago." "Cameron?" Her eyes darkened. "So I have him to thank for scaring me half out

of my wits." Marcus leapt from the couch. Elise retreated several steps. "You truly have taken leave of your senses." He stopped two paces from her. "Had I known—had I come for you—I would have given you a scare you wouldn't have forgotten. Being kidnapped by the Campbells clearly left no impression on you." "I was well out of

MacGregor territory when Daniel found me. I was safe." Marcus seized her hand and yanked her close. "So safe you were accosted in an alleyway. And a woman on a ship alone—bound for America—no, Australia. No money, no escort—although, money you had in abundance. Why did you leave?" Her lips pursed. "That is none of your business." "None of my business?

Bloody hell, Elise, I will have my answers." He yanked her so close he could feel her breath on his face. "Why?" He twisted her wrist slightly and she winced. "Elise," he repeated. Silence followed, then she said, "I decided it was time to go." Marcus tightened the tenuous hold on his temper. "Well, you can't go." He shoved her away from him.

He closed his eyes, massaging the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. "I can't go?" she repeated softly. He whirled on her. "I have just spent one of the most hellish hours of my life and you think I'll be swayed by your indignation?" Marcus moved an inch closer. "Think again, my sweet." He inched even closer and she backed

away from him. "I am the master here, and I will let you push me only so far." He slid closer. Elise sidled to her left, but he grasped her shoulders. He forced her back against the wall and pressed himself against her. Their eyes locked. He broke the standoff, his gaze dropping to her lips. The beat of his heart pounded against the swell of her breasts. He breathed deep,

then pulled her to the couch and shoved her onto the cushion. "Now, what is this foolishness?" "I can't stay here forever. It's time I go." "It is not," he growled. Elise jumped. "Do not move. I won't strike you. Though, God knows, I would love nothing more than to turn you over my knee."

"Comforting," she said with a snort. "Listen, you little fool, when I think it's time for you to go, if I ever think it's time for you to go, I will tell you." "You can't stop me." Marcus stared. "You think I can't stop you? I can do anything I damn well please." Though this was the first time he'd used his power to take advantage of a woman. "Do you plan on

making her a prisoner?" his father had asked. "Cameron is master here, not you," Elise said. "He can let me go." "There's no real difference between my father's authority and mine." "There is enough difference. If he says I can go, then I can." "It doesn't matter. He will not." "You are so sure?"

Marcus exhaled loudly. "You don't mind, then, if I ask." She stood. He couldn't believe it. "You would ask him?" Elise raised a brow. "Afraid?" Marcus paused. "You will let this rest if he agrees with me?" "He won't." Marcus followed two paces behind as Elise stepped from the staircase into the

great hall moments later. It was mid-afternoon, and only the men who had fetched her home lingered in the hall with Cameron. She smiled and approached him while Marcus sauntered to the hearth and propped an elbow on the large mantle. Elise stopped before Cameron, who glanced from her to Marcus, then back again. "I would like to speak with you, Cameron," she said.

He motioned the men to leave. She seated herself in the chair beside his. Once the men were gone, he looked expectantly at her. "Marcus tells me I can't leave." "'Tis his decision." "You can countermand this edict." Cameron laughed. "I can, but will not." "Aren't I free?" she asked. "Don't I fall under the

same law as every Highlander?" Cameron's mouth twitched and he looked at Marcus. Marcus raised a brow and his father turned back to her. "Why do you want to leave, lass? Have we not been good to you? Have no' we cared for you as one of our own?" His expression softened. "You're a sweet lass. We would miss you." Her eyes narrowed. "I

feel certain you would survive quite well without me." Her voice quieted. "I don't belong here." He frowned. "Who has been filling your head with such silliness?" She hesitated. "No one. It's simply obvious, is all." "Nonsense." Elise leaned on the table and said in lowered tones, "I must go." "Why?"

She dropped her gaze to her hands clasped atop the table. "There are certain… rumors about me." His brow furrowed. "Such as?" Elise leaned closer. "It is said that I am Marcus's mistress." "What?" Cameron burst out. Marcus dropped his elbow from the mantel. "Nay, lad." His father

held up a hand. "Stand where you are." Marcus halted and Cameron focused again on Elise. "Who said this?" She shook her head. "That isn't important." "But it is." "No—" "If I am to consider any petition," he interrupted, "I must know all the facts." After a moment's silence, she mumbled an answer. "What? Speak up, lass."

Marcus strained, but missed the single word she repeated. "Margaret?" Cameron repeated loudly. Marcus started forward. His father's attention jerked to him. "Hold, Marcus." Their gazes locked, Cameron's mouth twitching, then he looked back at Elise. "Is this what the two of you were fashin' over?" "Margaret?" Marcus

echoed. Elise released an audible groan. Cameron looked at him. "You should have seen 'em. Had I not arrived when I did —" "It isn't funny," Elise snapped. "Aye, lass"—his shoulders began to shake with laughter—"it is." "All this over a silly conversation with Margaret?"

Marcus demanded. "It would seem so," Cameron said between fits of laughter. "I will put an end to Margaret's troublemaking." Marcus muttered. His father had been right; he should have dallied with the demimonde and left the noblewomen to their own devices. Elise grabbed Cameron's arm. "But, Cameron," she

shook his arm, "it's not true." "Wha—" "She's lying," Elise insisted Marcus's mind snapped to attention. Cameron gave a final grunt, then sobered. He focused on Marcus. "Is this true? I had thought—" he broke off with a slight cough and a sideways glance at Elise. Marcus swung his gaze

onto Elise. "What are you doing?" "Marcus," Cameron cut him off. Marcus looked at his father. "Is it true?" Cameron repeated. "Damn close," Marcus replied with force. "Marcus!" Elise cried. "Do not act as if it isn't true," he replied irritably. She shot to her feet.

"You are no gentleman, sir." "Elise," his father said, "sit." She cast a dark glance at Marcus. He raised a brow, but she did as ordered and reseated herself. Cameron addressed Marcus. "Is it true, lad?" "Aye, she speaks the truth." "Margaret ought not to have lied." Cameron gave Marcus a quick glance.

"'Course, she had no way of knowing it was a lie." He rubbed his chin. "If ye don't belong to Marcus—" "Cameron!" Marcus strode across the room to his father's side. Elise leapt from her chair. "Be quiet, Marcus MacGregor, and let your father speak." "She may have a point," Cameron said. Marcus kept his gaze on

Cameron. "Father," he growled, "you know my feelings on this." "Aye, lad, but if you haven't done anything about it yet—" "Cameron—" "I warn you, Marcus." Elise stalked toward him. "Remain silent and let your father finish, or I'll…" she stopped, looking wildly about the room. Her gaze stopped on the weapons mounted on

the wall, and she ran to them. Marcus cast his father a look and they both burst out laughing. Elise made a frustrated sound as she began tugging on a scabbard containing a large sword. The weapon remained fixed and she moved to another. That one didn't budge, nor the next or the next. "Elise, lass," Cameron said between howls of laughter, "you're tugging on

the scabbards." He laughed even harder. "If you wish to draw a weapon"—he slapped the table with his hand, "grab the"—he gasped with laughter—"hilt." He doubled over with laughter. "By God," he wheezed, "are ye sure you're not Irish, lass?" "Irish?" She laid a hand on the hilt of a lady's sgian dubh mounted above the swords she had already tried. "You've never seen an Irish

temper like my father's. Except, perhaps"—she turned back to the wall—"mine." Elise pulled the dagger free of its scabbard. She stepped a pace from the wall, drew back, and threw the knife. The sgian dubh whizzed between Marcus and his father, entering the wooden table with a loud thwang. Aside from a "Sweet mother of God" from the

kitchen doorway, silence reigned. Both men stared at the knife. Marcus pulled the dagger free of the wood and held it up, looking at her. "You missed." She raised a brow. "I did not." "Sweet mother of God," Cameron repeated. "Where did you learn to throw a knife like that?" She gave him a disgusted

look. "Are you sure you want her, Marcus?" "Aye," he replied, not taking his eyes off her. Cameron slapped the table again. "A Celtish woman who can throw a knife. I knew I liked you." He patted the chair. "Come, sit." Marcus tensed for the moment she studied them before crossing to the chair and reseating herself.

Cameron leaned back in his chair. "Why didn't you tell us you are Celt?" "I didn't know it mattered." He gave Marcus a satisfied look. "What?" she demanded. "What has happened?" "'Tis as you said," Cameron said, "you fall under Highland law. You're an Irishwoman. We are family." "I am free to go, then?"

"Well," he answered slowly, "'tis not so easy." "But Winnie said any clansman who didn't agree with their clan could leave." Cameron's lips thinned. "I wouldn't speak of Winnie. That isn't working in your favor." "But—" He shook his head. "She would be the first to admit that she wasn't talking about women traipsing off alone."

"What?" Cameron gave her a considering look. "Did she not send Peter with you?" "Yes, bu—" "And did she not tell you it was a bad idea?" "I wouldn't say—" Cameron raised a brow. "I have a right to come and go as I please." "You're a woman," he insisted. "You must submit to your lord."

She stiffened. "I have no lord. I am unmarried." "All women have a lord," he explained gently. Elise shook her head. "I am free." "Aye, you are a free woman—not a slave—but I am your lord." "You? Ridiculous." "You are under my roof. You are a part of us." "Cameron—" "It would be wrong of

me to let you go," he interrupted gruffly. "You should never have run off in the first place." "But you were going to let me go," she insisted. He shrugged. "I was considering it, but I hadn't made up my mind either." Elise jumped up and whirled on Marcus. "This is your fault." "My fault? This was your idea."

"Now, lass," Cameron interjected, "tomorrow Marcus will deal with Margaret and she'll never interfere again." Elise turned on Cameron. "Cameron, please—" He brought his palm down on the table. "Enough." He looked to Marcus. "Marcus, take her upstairs and put her to bed—once and for all." Marcus took hold of her

arm. She started to resist, but Cameron gave a single shake of his head. Marcus prodded her toward the stairs and her shoulders slumped. "This is wrong," she said, taking the stairs with deliberate slowness. "It's finished," Marcus replied. "You have nothing to say about it." "I have been patient," he said, as they reached the top

of the stairs. "I never asked for your patience." He placed a hand on her back and urged her down the hallway at a quicker pace. "Count yourself fortunate that's what you've gotten. Now go to bed." They came to a halt before her bedchamber door. "I'll go to bed when I am good and ready," she retorted. Marcus leaned in close

behind her. "Go to bed before it's too late." She shook her head. "You play a dangerous game." He opened the bedchamber door and shoved her inside. "What the devil are you talking about?" He stepped into the room, shutting the door behind him. "By God, did your husband teach you nothing of respect? What of

trust"—desire flared to life inside him—"or…desire?" Elise paled. Marcus started at her sudden expression of pain. "Bloody hell." He reached her side in an instant. "Forgive me, love." She turned away, but he grasped her shoulders. "Please go," she said, her head averted. "Did you love him deeply?" Marcus asked. She

grasped his wrist and tried to disengage them from her hands, but he tightened his grip. "Elise?" She lifted her head and met his gaze. "No." Marcus blinked. Her eyes widened and he was unsure if he read fear or remorse. "What happened?" he asked. Her expression hardened. "That is none of your concern." "Mayhap, but I want the

answer." At first it seemed she wouldn't comply, then in a tired voice, "Riley shouldn't have married. He didn't want the ties of a wife, and certainly not the responsibilities of a child." "How can a man not love a beautiful wife who gives him children in his own image?" She dropped her gaze, but he didn't miss the scarlet

that crept up her cheeks. "Elise." "You have your answers. Now go." With a finger, he forced her chin upwards. "The man was a fool. How he could not want you—" She twisted from his grasp. "I never said he didn't want me. We had a daughter." "A child need not come of passion." She shot him a defiant

look. "You tread on dangerous ground." He slid an arm around her back. "Tell me, love, did he kiss you like this?" Marcus pressed his mouth to hers, gently caressing her lips with his. She squirmed, but he tightened his hold. Slowly deepening the kiss, he parted her lips with his tongue, tasting the hot moistness of her mouth and encouraging

her to enjoy him. Her breath quickened, and he slid wet kisses across the smooth skin of her neck. He grazed a breast with his hand and felt her sharp intake of breath. He kissed her mouth, harder this time. At last, he released her. Elise looked into his eyes, her expression flat. "That is lust. Any man can feel lust." "True," Marcus agreed. "And I can find a woman to

satisfy lust. But this is need. A need," he cupped her bottom, pressing her to him, "born of strong desire, fueled by something much deeper. This leads to true passion." Keeping her close, he lifted her from the floor and carried her to the bed. He settled her upon the bed, then lay down beside her. "This is a need so great it drives a man wild." He stroked her neck. "That's

what I felt our first meeting in the meadow. You have no idea what you do to me." He nuzzled her neck. "Even the ride home with you in my lap was painful." He kissed her neck. She shook her head, but he went on. "Just the thought of you incites me like a raging fire." Marcus rolled onto her. He stroked her shoulder, then slid his hand down to cover a breast. He kissed the base of

her neck. She gripped his shoulders and it seemed she would resist. He slipped a finger inside her bodice and brushed a nipple. Her hold tightened on his shoulders. "Sweet," he whispered, "ye are beautiful. I want you." He tugged her bodice down and grasped the nipple between thumb and forefinger, rolling it gently. She arched a breath's movement toward him.

"Aye," he coaxed. "You want me." He moved against her. "Tell me you want me. Come, sweet, surely you can give me those simple words." He kissed her, moving against her more ardently. She abruptly shoved at him. He rocked against her again. She shoved harder. "No," she said in a voice hoarse with effort. "Wha—?" He tried to focus his eyes.

She arched. "Elise." He buried his head in her hair. "Get off me." Her fingernails pressed through his shirt, biting into his shoulder. Marcus lifted his head. "What has happened? What's wrong?" Elise pushed harder, grunting with the useless effort. "I will not be your mistress."

He frowned. "I'm not asking you to be my mistress." She stopped pushing at him. "Then what is this all about?" "What does it look like?" "Why don't you ask the woman you are going to marry?" "I would be glad to, if she would allow it." Elise stared. "What kind of man involves his future

wife with his mistress?" She began struggling again. "Let me go!" "Not until you explain what this is about." "I have told you." "Nay. You've only spoken in riddles." "I'm sure Margaret would not think it was much of a riddle," she retorted. "Margaret? You're still fretting about her silly comments? I told you,

tomorrow I will—" The horrified look on Elise's face halted him. "Marcus," she said in a trembling voice, "if you have any feeling for me, you will not do this. Margaret made it perfectly clear how she felt about you flaunting your mistress—" "Flaunting my mistress?" Anger flooded him. "This is none of her bloody affair." "None of her affair? For

God's sake, you are to marry her. I certainly wouldn't—" "I what?" Elise blanched. "Margaret," he said through gritted teeth, "I will wring your meddling little neck." Elise bristled. "You have no right to be angry just because she spoiled your plans." "Aye, but I do." "You think you can use

women as pawns." "Love—" "Do not address me in that familiar fashion. I tell you, I will not be your mistress." She struggled beneath him. "I won't change my mind, no matter what you say." Marcus caught her face between his hands. "No matter what I say?" She tried shaking her head, but he held her firm.

"I am happy to hear that," he said. "For 'tis not Margaret I intend to marry, but you."

Chapter Nine A hard knock sounded on the door of Winnie's cottage. Elise started from her concentration on the teacup Winnie stood filling with hot water. They exchanged a questioning look before Winnie called "Come in" as she turned and replaced the kettle over the fire.

The door opened and Mary entered. She brushed back the shawl thrown over her head as cover against the light rain and addressed Elise. "Ye must come to the castle." "Why?" "'Tis the MacGregor's command." Elise bristled. His imperious commands—her stomach did a somersault— were those of a husband-tobe. She summoned a

believable amount of female condescension. "What does he want?" "He and Lady Ross are in his library. Says you must come without delay." "Margaret?" Elise shot a glance at Winnie. "The man keeps his promises," Winnie remarked. "The man is an idiot." Elise turned back to Mary. "Tell him I'm busy." The girl gasped. "I canna'

do that. He'll have my hide." Elise's stomach gave another turn. It was her hide he wanted. Tell him the truth, her mind insisted, but she ignored the urging now as she had last night when Marcus said it was her he wanted to marry and not Margaret. He wasn't the sort of man who would let his wife set off to America with the intention of avenging herself against a killer. And

Amelia and Steven deserved more than to be forgotten at sea. "Tell him I'm busy," Elise said. Mary shot Winnie a beseeching look, but Winnie shrugged. "Lady Margaret can go to the devil." Mary looked at Elise again. "You can't refuse." Elise gave a single shake of her head. Mary looked from one to the other, then

whirled and left the cottage. Elise still sat across the table from Winnie, deep in conversation, when another rap sounded on the cottage door, this one sharper than the last. "Who in the world?" Winnie complained. She hurried to the door and threw it open. "Marcus." The housekeeper stepped back. Elise flicked her gaze from Marcus to Margaret,

who stood beside him, then narrowed her eyes on him. He lifted a brow as if to ask where she would now hide and, despite her efforts, her heartbeat accelerated. "May we?" Marcus indicated the interior of the cottage with a nod. "Aye, of course." Winnie stepped clear of the doorway. Margaret glided into the room ahead of him and sat in the chair Winnie had

occupied. Marcus leaned against the doorframe. A moment of silence passed before Margaret addressed Elise. "I understand there has been a misunderstanding between us." For the hundredth time, Elise thanked God for the misunderstanding. Otherwise, Marcus would have looked deeper for the reason behind her running away.

"I wish to apologize for any distress I caused," Margaret said. Elise quirked a brow. A tinge of red heightened the color in the woman's cheeks. Satisfaction shot through Elise. What would the woman think of Marcus's marriage proposal to a lowly servant? The thought vanished with the realization that Marcus might have told her. Who else might he have told? The

possibility of spending the rest of her life with this man — "I regret you misinterpreted my words," Lady Ross went on. "I understood you perfectly," Elise replied. Another long silence drew out before Margaret looked at Marcus. "Now that this is all settled, your—" She stopped, and Elise caught sight of the now hard set of

his jaw. Margaret turned her attention back to Elise. "We understand one another, then?" "We do." Lady Ross angled her head. "I shall be going." She glanced at Marcus. "If I may?" With a brusque nod, he straightened from the doorframe. "Winnie, escort Lady Ross to the stables, if you please."

Margaret rose and walked to the door. She paused beside Marcus as though to say something but, with a curtsy, left with Winnie closing the door behind them. When they'd gone, he closed the door and faced Elise. "I sent for you." "Yes." "Yet you forced me to bring Margaret to you." "Yes."

"And when we arrived, you were less than gracious." "Milord," Elise said in exaggerated tones, "you can force me to sit quietly while you issue commands, but you cannot force me to agree." Marcus blinked, then started toward her. She tensed as he threw himself into the chair beside hers, folded his arms across his chest, and regarded her. "Is it so difficult to do as

I ask?" "In this case, yes," she replied. "This request, then, went against your… moral fiber?" "That is one way of putting it." A gleam appeared in his eye and a prickle of dread crept up her neck. "This means," he went on, "you will honor future requests so long as they do not go against your moral

convictions?" "Perhaps," she answered tentatively. "Mayhap a distraction would help." His gaze held hers. "Would you like to know what sort of distraction I have in mind?" "No," she replied, and mentally cursed the all-tooquick response. "Too late." Marcus stood. In one quick motion, he grasped her

waist and lifted her onto the table. With a single finger, he tilted her chin upward so she was forced to look directly into his eyes. "I have found my threats are meaningless. Probably because you know I am incapable of carrying them out against your beautiful body." He shifted his gaze to her neck and moved his finger lightly on the hollow of her

throat. Elise tried to quell the quiver in her stomach, but the almost imperceptible, yet arrogant twitch at the corner of his mouth said she hadn't been completely successful. "I am, however, more than willing to do this every time you disobey me." He cupped the nape of her neck as he bent and covered her mouth with his. Elise twisted in an effort to distance their bodies.

Marcus gave a satisfied grunt and shoved her thighs apart with his knee. He pulled her close, pressing her stomach against his erection. A gust of desire startled Elise. He slipped a hand beneath her skirt. She wriggled in an attempt to break the kiss. Her belly rubbed across his hard shaft. She jerked back, but he hugged her closer as he traced circles up her inner thigh. She

seized his shoulders and tried to shake his immoveable body. His tongue slipped past her lips and thrust gently against her tongue. In her mind's eye, she saw him ease her back onto the table and pull up her dress until she lay bared before him. How easily he could spread her legs, then lift his kilt and—Elise jolted. His hand had moved farther up her thigh. She swayed with

dizziness. Body and mind seemed connected only through the roiling in her stomach. His fingers brushed the sensitive skin on the uppermost part of her thigh. Elise tore her mouth from his and buried her head in his shoulder. "Enough," she said between heavy breaths. His hand stilled. "Have I selected an effective distraction?"

"You know perfectly well what you've done." Marcus removed his hand from her thigh, then grasped her shoulders, holding her at arm's length. "Beware," he said, and something suspiciously close to a smile played on his mouth, "for, if I find you disobeying me too often, I will conclude you crave the distraction." Realization washed over

her. "You odious man!" She pushed him from her. Clutching his breast, Marcus took a step back. "You wound me, my sweet." "I'm in no mood for games." She stood and began smoothing her rumpled skirts, slowing the action upon seeing her hands tremble. "I assure you," he said with a seriousness that yanked her attention onto him, "this is no game." The

glitter in his eyes reflected the edge in his voice. Elise stared. "You can't be serious. You wouldn't…" "Do what I have just done? That and more. Passion is a powerful distraction." His gaze held hers and she knew he was remembering his final words before leaving her room last night, "I will wed you." He abruptly turned and strode to the door.

Elise tried tearing her gaze from his muscled calves but found herself unable to blink until the door closed softly behind him. How was she going to get out of this mess? If she told him she didn't love him, he wouldn't believe her. * * * * Elise sat on the bed beside Chloe, gripping the girl's hands and keeping them pressed against the mattress

as Winnie placed a hand on Chloe's stomach. Her deft fingers inched along the skin until she located the unborn child's buttocks. Winnie pressed hard, trying once again to coax the buttocks away from the birthing canal. Elise rubbed her forehead against her shoulder in an effort to brush back sweatmatted hair from her eyes. Winnie suddenly pushed hard on the baby's rear. Chloe

flinched, crying out. Elise twisted and met the older woman's gaze. Winnie straightened and gave a small but significant shake of her head. Elise gently massaged Chloe's wrists before reaching for the rag floating in a water basin beside the bed. Elise wrung out the rag and wiped the girl's forehead. Chloe writhed. "Shhh," Elise soothed. "It'll soon be over."

"Nay!" Chloe shoved at her hand. "I've killed my own bairn." Elise wiped Chloe's neck. The girl's body clenched. "Winnie!" Elise called, but Winnie was already pressing down on the baby. Chloe jerked and would have bolted upright, but Elise grabbed her shoulders and shoved her deep into the mattress. "I've killed him," Chloe

whimpered. She relaxed, the contraction receding, but her weeping continued. Elise looked at Winnie, who again placed a hand over the baby's buttocks and tried forcing the head into position. Elise watched the skillful hands at work. Winnie had an uncanny knack for understanding the core of a problem. She always had some potion ready for any ailment. But no

potion could be concocted for Chloe. The girl no longer wept. She lay, eyes closed, her tear-stained face resigned. With a short nod to Elise, Winnie pressed down on Chloe's stomach again. Elise held Chloe's arms. The girl did little more than grunt when Winnie bore down on her stomach. Another contraction struck. Chloe's hips arched off the bed. Elise bit her lip to keep the tears in

check. How much more could the girl endure? She'd labored for twenty-two hours. Soon, she would grow too weak to birth the child. Winnie pressed down on the baby for an agonizing hour and a half, then abruptly took a quick step back and reached beneath the sheet covering Chloe's legs. Elise felt a sudden jerk on Chloe's body, and the girl nearly wrenched free of her hold.

"Hold her!" Winnie shouted. Elise closed her eyes. Chloe screamed. Elise heard a loud swooshing noise and her eyes shot open as Chloe went limp. No loud wail followed. Chloe bolted upright. "Give him to me!" "Now, Chloe," Winnie cooed, her back to them. "Let me take the babe and—" "Nay!" Chloe screamed.

"Give me my bairn." Winnie looked over her shoulder. "Chloe, 'tis best if ye don't see him." Her eyes softened. "Trust me, lass, I know." Chloe looked at Winnie, her face suddenly far older than her nineteen years. "He's mine. I have the right to hold him." Her pained expression deepened. A pain of the soul, not the body. One Elise knew all

too well. "The bairn is a part of me," Chloe ended simply. Winnie sighed, then faced them. Elise told herself to avert her gaze, but maternal instinct, the memory of her own lost child, brought her gaze to bear on the beautifully formed babe. Winnie placed him in his mother's arms. Chloe cradled him as tenderly as if he had lived. She wiped the blood

from his face, then traced his mouth with a gentle finger. She looked up at Winnie. "He has Daniel's mouth." "Aye," Winnie replied. Chloe began to rock as she sang in a low voice. The Gaelic words were as Greek to Elise but the meaning was clear. Unshed tears stung her eyes. The picture of mother and child blurred with the memory of holding her own dear Amelia, the feel of her

daughter's skin, baby soft against her breast. Elise's gaze focused on the bloodsmeared body of Chloe's child. Were things so different for her? Did Chloe love the nameless child any less than she had loved Amelia? Love had deepened for Amelia as time passed. Yet she and Chloe shared the same pain that came with lost possibilities. The young

woman had glimpsed her husband in their child. Elise had seen much of Robert in Amelia. Who would the children have grown up to be? Who would they have fallen in love with? What children might they have brought into the world? Winnie snatched the child from Chloe's arms. Chloe's tear-filled gaze locked on the babe as Winnie whirled and disappeared

through the door. Elise froze. She was alone with the grief stricken mother. Her own loss, instead of creating a bridge between them, had widened the chasm, bringing her to the precipice where roiled unrealized emotions, more bittersweet memories— and another, deeper, more concrete conviction that she, too, had failed as a mother. "I killed him," Chloe whispered.

Elise stared. When had it happened? What had been the defining moment in history when womankind became convinced that if anything went awry in the lives of those they loved, they were somehow responsible? Had it begun with Eve? Had the beguiling serpent planted the seed that all mankind would suffer as a result of her misdeed? Elise fell to her knees beside Chloe's bed.

"No." She took the shaking girl into her arms. "It isn't your fault. It's no one's fault." Chloe clung to her, her tears bathing Elise's neck. It seemed hours later when Elise heard the creak of the door and looked up to see Winnie standing in the doorway. Winnie's gaze went to Chloe, who slept, then came back to Elise. Elise rose from the bed and tiptoed

across the floor. Winnie stepped from the doorway and Elise followed, quietly closing the door behind her. The porch, not long ago filled with friends and neighbors joyously awaiting the arrival of the newest MacGregor, now held only silence. "You told Daniel?" Elise asked. "Aye." "Where is he?" She nodded to the left of

the cottage where the path led into the cover of the moonless night. Elise started down the steps. "Perhaps ye had best leave him to his grief," Winnie offered. Elise paused, then disappeared into the darkness. Daniel hadn't gone far. She saw him, arm outstretched on a tree, shoulders shaking with silent tears. She halted a few feet

from him. "Daniel." She heard his quick intake of breath and stepped closer in order to put a hand on his shoulder. "Daniel." His shoulder stiffened beneath her fingers. She turned him toward her. Without hesitation he fell into her arms and wept. "A son," he said between sobs. "I know," she replied, and his tears fell even more

freely. At last, he released her and stepped back. He straightened, again the proud warrior. Elise breathed a silent sigh of relief. He would recover. Now for Chloe. "Daniel, the loss of the child is terrible, but you have something else which must be dealt with now." "What?" "Chloe." "Is something amiss?

Winnie said she would live." He looked as if he would race back to the cottage. "No," Elise quickly put in, "you misunderstand. She will live. However…" Elise hesitated. These Highland men weren't known for having a deep understanding of their women, and she, a stranger, stood before one of them, presuming to tell him how to better deal with one of his own.

"Out with it," he growled. "If she is in danger —" His voice lowered. "Did Winnie lie?" He seized her shoulders. Elise laid a hand on his arm. "The danger doesn't lie with her body, but her heart." "Her heart?" "She blames herself. What's worse, she believes you blame her." His hands dropped away. "Of course I don't blame her."

"She thinks otherwise." He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. "She'll think differently tomorrow." Anger shot through Elise. "You, sir, have no idea what a woman thinks." A silence drew out between them before he said, "What did she say?" "She didn't tell me outright, but I… I understand how she feels." Daniel studied her. "You

lost a child?" "Yes." He breathed deep. "What's to be done?" "Go to her. Be with her. Let her know you still love her. It's you she needs." He stared for a moment then, without a word, strode toward the cottage. Elise watched until he disappeared into the darkness. A moment later, she heard the shuffle of boots on the porch.

With the click of the cottage door, exhaustion washed over her. She took three steps to the closest tree and leaned against the trunk, resting her head. What a fool she was to have become too entangled with these people. They were no longer faceless strangers, but named friends whose lives had touched her. Friends she had deceived—Marcus most of all. She pushed from the tree and started down the

path. No guard remained to escort her home. The moon peeked from behind clouds. She welcomed the solitary walk. The moment the thought formed, tears rolled down her cheeks. Elise gave her head a hard shake but only succeeded in further blurring her vision. The moon dipped behind the clouds again and she was plunged into shadows. Her toe

slammed against a rock. She lurched forward. She thrust her hands out in defense of the fall, but large hands seized her waist and yanked her against a hard body. Elise opened her mouth to scream but the arm tightened around her and the scream emerged a squeak. "Re-release me you brute!" she wheezed, giving her assailant a hard kick to the leg.

He cursed softly. Her stomach did a somersault. Marcus. "Brute, is it?" he murmured. A strained note in his voice said the kick had been successful. "You dare call me brute when I saved you from a nasty fall?" Elise sagged against him. "You gave me a scare." She took a deep breath. He ran a hand over her shoulder, following the caress

with a kiss to her neck. "'Tis not nice for a lady to call her lover a brute." Another kiss followed on her shoulder. "Good Lord." She broke free and faced him, trying to discern his features in the darkness. When unsuccessful, she muttered, "You truly are a man." He chuckled. "That doesn't please you?" Marcus took her hand and started down the path. "Never mind.

It will soon enough." They walked for a few moments, then he slipped an arm around her waist. A shock rippled through Elise, settling between her legs. This feeling she had to guard against. When she left—her heart wrenched and she became painfully aware of his arm around her. His warmth had seeped through her dress, comforting, offering the promise—Elise clamped

down on the burgeoning desire. She wouldn't hurt him by giving herself to him then leaving. She had to keep him at a distance for just a little longer. "You must be exhausted," he said. She thought of Chloe. "I'm worried about Chloe." "She'll be fine. Daniel loves her." "Yes. Their love is their salvation."

"'Tis always the case," Marcus stated matter-offactly. Her heart leapt. "Oh?" "Aye. The love between a man and a woman is salvation itself." "Perhaps. However, they will be needing an extra dose now." "You don't think Daniel loves her?" "I believe he will do his best to comfort her," she

replied. "And who will comfort Daniel?" "Chloe, of course. Who else?" "Who else, indeed?" Marcus repeated softly, and this time she couldn't stop the flutter of her heart. * * * * When they entered the castle's kitchen, Marcus ordered Mary to prepare a hot bath for Elise. She protested,

but he shook his head. "I planned on going straight to bed," she complained, as he escorted her through the kitchen. "Trust me." He forced her to keep pace with him as they crossed the great hall. "You will thank me in the morning." They neared the stairs and he prodded her up. She remained silent until they reached her door. "Really—" she began.

"Go," he interrupted. "I'll return in a moment." Elise sighed but acquiesced. Marcus strode down the hallway to his room. He pushed past his bedchamber door and crossed to the sideboard in the far corner. He poured a brandy and drank it in one swallow. He grimaced, then poured another and went back to Elise's room. Pausing at her

door, he knocked once then entered. She looked up sharply, one hand on the remaining boot she was in the process of removing. "You might have waited until I gave you permission to enter," she said, giving him a reproachful look. "Drink this." He handed her the brandy. Elise set the boot on the floor, then took the glass. She sniffed and peered at him

over the rim of the snifter. "Napoleon brandy." She drank it in nearly as quick a flourish as he had. Marcus raised his brows. "Careful, lass. One should acquire a tolerance for spirits before gulping them." "I wish you'd brought two. Mmm." She stood. "Makes me feel warm all over." A knock sounded at the door.

"Come in," he called. Elise frowned. "This is my bedchamber," she said, as the door opened and two men entered carrying the bathtub. "If you don't mind, I will be the one to allow visitors entrance." Her gaze shifted to the tub. She thrust the glass forward, bumping Marcus's chest. He grasped the snifter as she released it and stepped past him. "Over there," she instructed, "by the fire."

Two more men followed with pails of steaming water. "Mary said the rest of the water will take a little time to heat," one man said, as he dumped his pail into the tub. Elise walked to the tub and peered into it. "Two pails of cool water will do." The men nodded and were gone. She faced Marcus. He gave her a questioning look, knitting his brows as though not comprehending.

"Marcus." "Ah, yes." He set the glass on the nightstand, then came to stand beside her. He grasped her shoulders and spun her facing away from him. "Wha—?" He began unbuttoning the buttons down the back of her dress. "Marcus!" She tried to twist free. "Hold still," he

commanded, holding fast to the dress, "or you'll rip the fabric." Elise reached back, slapping at him, and hit the hard muscle of his hip. She instantly snatched her hand back. He regretted his lack of foresight in not standing closer. An inch or two more, and she might have managed a nice swat to his groin. "Release me," she growled.

"Not unless you intend to bathe in your clothes." He tugged on the final button, leaving the dress open to her waist. She grasped the back of her dress, whirling just in time to hide her back from the man who entered with the two pails of cold water she'd requested. She stepped out of his way as he hurried past her and Marcus to pour the water into the tub. He turned and

left. The door clicked closed behind him. Elise faced Marcus. He grinned and leaned against the bedpost. Her eyes narrowed. "Marcus MacGregor." "I could wash your back —" "Out!" She pointed to the door. He sighed, straightening from the bedpost. He started for the door then halted, and faced her. "Mayhap another

brandy? It would take me only—" "Ohhh!" She lunged forward and shoved at his chest. He took a faltering step back. "It would relax you, lass. Trust—" Elise released her hold on the back of her dress and used both hands to push even harder. He stepped back several paces until he came up against the door.

"Surely you don't mean to keep all the warm water to yourself," he said. She leaned into him. "You want to share the water?" His body tensed. "I would gladly share your bathwater, love." Elise shoved away from him. "Fine. I will have it sent to your room when I'm done." Marcus entered the

kitchen an hour later to find Mary sitting by the fire. "How is Elise?" "I haven't heard a peep. Should I see to her?" He shook his head. "I will go." A few minutes later, Marcus opened Elise's door. He froze at the sight of her fast asleep in the tub. Mesmerized, he tried to throttle the dizzying current that raced through him. He

had held her intimately. Yet those encounters had not prepared him for the sight of her naked. Earlier, he had teased her mercilessly, knowing full well she wouldn't give in. Now, she lay before him in all her womanly splendor, his for the taking. In his mind's eye, he saw himself lift her from the water. Her eyes would flutter open to register first surprise,

then desire. Desire streaked through him. A blush crept up her neck as he slid is gaze to her breasts. When he pressed her close, the moisture that clung to her skin dampened his shirt. Water dripped from her body and across the floor as he carried her to the bed. He laid her on the bed, coming down on top of her— Marcus jarred from the vision. The throb in his groin deepened and he couldn't halt

his gaze from moving down Elise's body, past her breasts, along her stomach to the curls below. He closed his eyes. If he took her now, she might acquiesce but would later blame him, feeling he had taken advantage in a moment of weakness. God help him, she would be right. If he took a single step toward her, nothing could call him back.

Marcus whirled. Behind him, sweet victory whispered. Then laughed.

Chapter Ten Elise awoke the following morning, the lingering warmth of Marcus's body from her dream state so real that she jolted awake upon reaching out and touching only cool sheets beside her. Sadness settled over her. There would be no mornings where they awoke

together, no mornings where Marcus pulled her close and kissed her body before slipping inside her. Tears stung her eyes. This time when she left, there would be no clues, no one to confess that she had gone with Peter McFie. She didn't blame Winnie. When confronted by her master, Winnie had told the truth. Elise expected nothing less. She had gambled and lost.

She wouldn't lose a second time. Now, if she could only locate the secret passageway leading from the castle to the outside. The mantel clock chimed softly. She looked at the clock. Nearly seven. Elise bolted upright. Marcus had likely already gone to the fields. She swung her legs over the side of the bed then paused before rising. He would be preoccupied with

final preparations for the celebration starting that night. If she chose the moment with care, he might not overanalyze her request to go to Michael's. A pang of guilt surfaced. Was the need to check for the notice in the Sunday Times worth manipulating him one last time? The question went beyond morality. When she reached Glasgow, if no ship left immediately for America,

she might have to go to another port. London was the best choice. But if the notice was still in the paper could she risk it? When Elise stepped from the postern door ten minutes later, she spotted Marcus at the front gate. He stood among a group of men, his horse's reins in hand. She hurried across the courtyard toward him. He turned as she neared. A smile spread across

his face. When she came within arm's length, he surprised her by dropping the reins and sweeping her into his embrace, then twirling her about. "Marcus," she breathed, "put me down." He twirled again. The ground spun around her and she squealed, burying her face in his neck. Her cheek instantly warmed with the contact of his skin. Her breath

quickened. Good Lord, she'd forgotten about his open shirt! He stopped and she looked up into his grinning face. "What brings you here this fine morning?" he asked, still holding her off the ground. "Put me down," she said. His grin widened, and Elise felt her cheeks flush even warmer. "People are watching."

"Lass," he said, imitating her secretive whisper, "we have no secrets." Elise glanced at the men who spoke amongst themselves as though she and Marcus weren't there. "Have you come to wish me a good day?" he asked. She looked back at him. "Of course." "Then ye mean to leave me with one of your sweet kisses." He lowered her to the

ground. Her heart sped up. Marcus's eyes darkened. There was something warm and enchanting in his humor and, against her better sense, Elise wound an arm around his neck and pulled him to her. Their lips met. Marcus gave a gentle but firm thrust of his tongue against her mouth. She jerked, sure every man present knew of the intimacy, but Marcus held

her another moment before breaking the embrace. He nuzzled her neck. "You make me feel as though I err going into the fields today." Elise pulled back and gazed up at him. He smiled. "Surely my time would be better spent with ye in your bedchamber?" She drew a sharp breath. "Nay, sweet." She tried to break away, but he held her

fast. "You don't kiss a man thusly and expect him no' to want more." Elise dropped her gaze to his chest. Warmth flooded her midsection at sight of the tan chest visible through his open shirt. She had sped past embarrassment into idiocy. Michael MacGregor and the Sunday Times be damned, she should have stayed in bed. "It was just a simple kiss," she said.

His masculine laugh rippled through the air. "I would say then that gives me much to look forward to." She jerked her head up. Marcus released her. "I had better go." He gave her a roguish wink. "Or I won't be going at all." "Wait," she said. "I have a request." "A request?" He turned to test the cinch on his mount's saddle.

"Michael hasn't arrived at Brahan Seer as Erin said he would. Lammas begins tonight, and he promised to be here yesterday. I would like to make a quick visit to see if he is well." Marcus turned his gaze on her. "I know there is a lot to do," she added hurriedly. "But I would only go there and back." "Lass—"

"You can send someone with me. I don't mind." "'Tis best—" "You cannot deny me. It isn't right—" Marcus grabbed her and she yelped as he clamped a hand over her mouth. "Hush," he said. Eyeing her suspiciously, he loosened his hold, then removed his hand from her mouth altogether. "I will send Erin to fetch his father."

"And if Michael isn't feeling well?" "I will send someone along with Erin. If Michael is unwell, the man can fetch someone to tend him. Erin will accompany me this morning. I'll send him to his father's this afternoon. They will be back in time for the festivities." Her heart sank. "I wanted to see for myself that he is well."

"If he feels too poorly to make the trip, he'll need a more experienced doctor." She scowled. "You think yourself clever, Marcus MacGregor." His mouth twitched and she gave him a dry look. "All right." Before realizing her own intent, she gave him a quick kiss on the jaw. Surprise flashed in his eyes. Elise backed away. "I

have work to do." She whirled and hurried toward the castle. * * * * A hard day's work hadn't dampened Marcus's anticipation. He spotted Elise standing on the far side of the courtyard, winding her way through the throng gathered in honor of Lammas. Her hair, piled atop her head, left the soft contours of her shoulders bare. With his gaze,

he traced the low-cut bodice of the olive green gown that hinted at the tender, creamy flesh of her breasts. She had adorned herself with MacGregor colors—his colors. A red and green sash of plaide crossed one shoulder and fastened at her waist. She paused in the crowd to speak to one person, then another. Musicians struck up, fiddle and bagpipe leading

the music, and the crowd cleared the center of the courtyard for those who joined in dance. Brian MacGregor swept Elise into the barn dance being played. She threw her head back, her delight in her companion obvious. Marcus waited a few turns, then caught them as they neared. "You can't keep the lady to yourself, Brian," he said. "Laird," Brian replied,

and released his hold on Elise. Marcus pulled her close. The music ended. He remained motionless, his gaze holding hers until the band began The Scottish. He realized the quickening of her breath in the rise and fall of her breasts as he swung her to the right in unison with other dancers. Her gaze broke from his, her lashes dropping

demurely. A tremor passed through him. Was she toying with him? Her fingers tightened on his shoulder as he executed a quick turn. Elise leaned into him, her hair brushing his jaw. She tipped her head up slightly. He felt her breath against his neck. A tiny smile lifted one corner of her mouth, then her brow puckered. "Is something wrong?" she asked.

"Nay, love." "You seem deep in thought." Marcus dodged another couple who strayed perilously close, then looked down at her. "I was thinking how I would like to take you from here and ravish your sweet body until you cry 'enough!'" Her mouth parted in a tiny gasp and he went on. "Then I would slowly and methodically make love to

every inch of your body until you lie exhausted beneath me." She stumbled. If not for his tight grasp, she would have fallen. Delighted, he pulled her closer. "I see the idea appeals to you." Her gaze dropped. When she brought her eyes back to bear on him, she looked at him through her lashes, a shy expression on her face. "I can only wonder, sir, if you have

the strength to fulfill such outlandish claims." Deviltry played in her eyes, and Marcus felt his body harden at seeing more than a little curiosity mixed in the bargain. "Aye." He pressed her more intimately against him. "I have the strength." Her intake of breath told him she felt his arousal. "Do you not agree?" he asked.

She remained silent for a moment. The noise of the crowd filled the air, the music winding between the spaces as if for them alone. Her eyes darkened, and she said, "It occurs to me, milord, that if you fulfilled such a promise, logic dictates it would be you who lay exhausted on top of me." "Indeed?" he said with the raise of an amused brow. He whirled her into the

final spin of the dance before the music ended. The dance crowd dispersed and new couples assembled as the music began again. They stood, still in each other's arms. She moved to step away, but he held her fast. She gave him a quizzical look. "Come, take a walk with me, love," he said. The dancers began dancing around them.

Elise shook her head. "You can't abandon your guests, and I promised Winnie I would help with the food." She pushed his arms from her and backed away. A couple danced between them. He saw the bemused look the woman gave Elise and realized she had seen it too. She was clear of the dancers now. "I had better go see if any help is needed in the kitchen,"

she shouted above the music. Marcus watched her turn and hurry away. So, the little minx had ventured a dip in the waters only to yank her foot back when it had been nibbled. Perhaps next time he would simply yank her in. * * * * Marcus hadn't considered the possibility that Elise would wish to accompany the women the following day on the yearly tradition of

swimming in the cool waters of Loch Katrine. Now, the procession had started and, per his order, his guards had stopped her from passing beyond the gates. He grimaced at seeing her agitated pacing as he approached. She stopped and glared at him. "Do you mean to keep me here while the other women go to the loch?" Her narrowed eyes dared him

answer yes. "John," he called to the nearest guard, "fetch another man and the two of you accompany the women to the loch." John's eyes widened. He cast a quick glance at Elise, then jerked his attention back to Marcus. Marcus gave him a dry look. "You are to watch for trouble, John, not the lasses." Marcus looked back at

Elise and stifled a laugh at the tight-lipped look on her face. Apparently she didn't care for being singled out with an escort. Imagine how she would feel when he came for her in a short while. The most important part of the tradition was allowing the women enough time to discard their dresses and frolic in the water. The men later followed to engage them in a sporting game of chase.

Elise abruptly whirled and strode through the gates down the path. "Hurry, lad," Marcus urged. "She's getting away." John called to a man on the wall, then hurried through the gates after her. Marcus turned his attention to Elise's retreating back. "Any antics, lass, and I'll turn you over my knee." She didn't acknowledge the threat, but he knew she'd

heard him. His first wife, Jenna, hadn't been predisposed to clan traditions and never participated in the game. This year, he had reason to participate. Elise disappeared from view down the path. She didn't understand the game. She soon would. Twenty minutes later, unable to resist the idea of Elise's scantily clad body gliding through the water,

Marcus emerged from the trees at the bottom of the mountainside. He hurried across the twenty-foot clearing where he ducked behind one of the larger patches of juniper bushes lining the jagged shoreline. Peering through the foliage and across the rocky shore, he witnessed the exact scene he had imagined. Elise, stripped to her chemise, dove into the blue waters of Loch

Katrine along with the other giggling women. The thin cotton chemise she wore the night he accosted her in his library revealed far more than the heavy flannel the women wore in the interest of modesty during this adventure, but he envisioned the revealing shadows he knew would be visible through the wet material. A giddy anticipation settled in his stomach. She would, at

first, be furious. With gentle persuasion, however… Marcus emerged from his hiding place and strode to the shore's edge. The women splashed one another, the recipients shrieking when their companions' aim found a mark. A woman squealed. He had been spotted. Elise looked his way. Just as he thought, the surprise on her face said she hadn't been informed of this part of the

game. He suspected that, if she knew the real reason behind the yearly ritual, she would have declined participation. She insisted on being a part of Brahan Seer; logic dictated that she receive full measure. Eyes steady on her, Marcus stripped off his boots. He stepped into the loch, his shins, then thighs, slicing through the water as he ventured deeper. The women

blazed a path for him, shrieking with delight while Elise remained frozen. "You had better move, lass," one woman called. "He's coming for ye, and if he catches you…" Peals of laughter followed. Elise's eyes abruptly shifted and she scanned her surroundings before returning to him. Marcus smiled. Her eyes narrowed, then she dove into the water. He halted,

waiting for her to resurface. Seconds ticked by and she didn't reappear. He scanned the water. A sudden round of triumphant shouts went up from the women and he whirled to see Elise rising from the water some thirty feet behind him. She started for the shore, her progress labored through the hip-deep water. By God, he would have to put his back into it to catch her before she reached

her clothes! She glanced back, throwing him a satisfied smirk. Oh ho! She may not have known the game, but she caught on fast. Marcus dove into the water, his strong strokes speeding him through the deeper water until he reached knee deep. He rose, the water no longer a hindrance to his fast pumping legs. His feet pounded onto the shore and, with a burst of

energy, he closed the gap between them. In a final sprint, he dove for her, his arms encircling her waist as he brought her to the ground. Elise sputtered and he realized she had gotten a mouthful of sandy dirt. "Oh!" she spat. "Let me go!" Marcus allowed her to thrash in his grasp until she had twisted into a prone position facing him. He

settled his weight on her. She beat at his chest. He chuckled and hugged her closer, trapping her arms between them. "Let me go!" she howled, kicking her heels on the ground like a spoiled child. Marcus tried looking innocent but knew he failed miserably. "Nay." "What in God's name are you doing? Why have you attacked me? This is an

outrage!" Her voice rose as she twisted in a serious effort to dislodge him. "Now, why do you say that, love? I am only playing with you." She looked at him as if he had lost his mind. Her eyes narrowed to slits. "One does not attack a defenseless woman." "Lass, I think you are anything but defenseless. Although, I am enjoying

myself at your expense." Marcus bent his head to whisper in her ear, "The women didn't explain the game." He went on to explain how, each year, the women came to the loch, and their men later followed. Those with wives sought them out, some in sport, some with the intentions of a child arriving nine months later. Those wanting to make a woman

their wife came with the hope that the love play would lead to the consummation of a betrothal. When Marcus finished, a blush had made its way from Elise's cheek to the delicate ear he'd been whispering into. "No," she said, her eyes wide. Marcus grinned. "Aye." She looked past him and he glanced over his shoulder to find several women

regarding them with interest. "I would like to get up now," Elise said. He looked back at her. "Aye." He came to his knees. Before she could rise, he slid his arms beneath her, cupping her to his chest. She gave him an impatient shove as he rose. "Set me down." Marcus assumed a thoughtful expression. "Nay. I have won and deserve my

reward." Elise lifted a brow. "Just what reward would that be, sir?" He grinned. Aye, she had learned the game. He stepped behind the cover of the bushes he had occupied earlier and paused, uncertain what he wanted to do with her. Marcus laughed inwardly. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with her. He simply hadn't decided

how to go about it. One thing he did know, however, he was enjoying the feel of her wet chemise against him far too much to release her just yet. He kissed her. She pushed against his chest and Marcus realized she wasn't about to let him make love to her in plain sight of the other women. He laid her on the ground and came down upon her, gently this time. He

tugged her chemise high enough to free her legs and settle between them. Her grip on his shoulders tightened. He kissed her again. Hard. She tensed. "Shh," he soothed. "Let me please you." He slid a moist kiss down her cheek, then along her neck. "Just a little love play," he whispered. He didn't intend on taking her there, tumbling her

like a serving wench, but please her, he would. Slowly, he smoothed a hand along her outer thigh. Grasping her chemise, he bunched it until his fingers touched the soft flesh beneath. Elise turned her head, her cheek against his, and placed a kiss on his jaw. Marcus breathed deep. He slipped his hand beneath her and cupped her buttocks. "I swear to only please you this time."

"We aren't—" She gasped as he lifted her buttocks, meeting her flesh with a gentle rotation of his shaft against her sex. Her breath came quicker. He caressed her buttocks, her hip. A distant pounding of hooves stabbed through the cloud of desire. He paused, his hand on her pelvis. Again, a distant sound—a roll of thunder? He lifted his head. In a flash, the memory of the

dream he'd had while at Declan's washed over him. Elise's grip on his shoulder tightened. "What is it?" Shrieks sounded. The women. Marcus shoved to his knees. He peered through the bushes. Riding like hell hounds toward them were seven Campbell warriors. Seven, his mind repeated calmly, not an army like that

in his dream. Only seven. He leapt to his feet. "Who are they?" Elise called. His hand shot to his side. Bloody hell, he'd left his sword at the keep. Foolish mistake. Marcus swung his gaze to the two warriors sent to guard the women. He made out the red of their plaide behind bushes thirty feet down shore. He glanced up the mountainside at Brahan

Seer. Why were no warriors charging down the hill? They must have seen the riders. Elise scrambled to her feet and Marcus whirled. He shoved her to the ground. "Do not move!" He turned back to watch the Campbells approach. The women shrieked. Those on the shore raced for the water, joining their comrades who had taken to deeper waters.

"Marcus!" Elise cried. He looked to see her standing, then glanced at the oncoming men. His heart thumped wildly. Had they seen her? Marcus grabbed her wrist, yanking her back to the ground. "Nell," she said, struggling to rise and pointing to the right of their hiding place. Marcus looked. There, sleeping soundly on the

shore, lay Nell, a young maid who had only last week begun working in the castle. Despite the ruckus, she didn't stir. Marcus recalled that she was deaf in one ear. His heart leapt into his throat. "Do not move," he ground out, and turned back to peer through the bush. The other women had swum safely to deeper waters. Someone cried out Nell's name, but the girl didn't

wake. Marcus looked at the Campbells. Two of the seven comrades reached the women's clothes and halted. More shrieks came from the women as they swam farther from shore. The two Campbells scanned the frantic women but made no move to pursue them. One of the Campbells said something indistinguishable. Marcus strained to make out the

other's response but without success. They continued to scrutinize the women, their attention moving farther to the right where Nell lay. They would see her in an instant. Marcus stood and stepped around the bush into full sight. He took two paces in the direction of his warriors' hiding place. "Look!" one of the Campbells shouted, and the other turned in Marcus's

direction. Marcus spied a large piece of driftwood. He hurried the few paces to the wood and snatched it up. He kept his gaze on the Campbell who had called out as he snapped off two small branches and dropped them. Four of the five remaining Campbells joined their companions. "Ha!" one of the newcomers exclaimed. "The

MacGregor thinks to bring us down with a stick of wood." The man unsheathed his sword and kicked his horse's belly. The beast lunged forward. The man bore down upon Marcus and swung his sword. Marcus deflected the blow with the driftwood as the horse shot past, and pivoted full circle, hitting the man across the back with the wood. A loud crack sounded and the man fell to the ground

limp. Two more Campbells spurred their horses toward him. He sprang forward, headed for the fallen Campbell's sword. He reached the weapon with a dive, barely missing the sweep of an oncoming rider's sword. The Campbell barreled past while his companion wheeled his horse hard right to intercept. The Campbells nearest the shore

shouted and two more of them shot toward Marcus. Marcus sprang to his feet, his steel meeting that of the man who had cut him off. Marcus faltered a step under the power of his opponent's swing. The man parried left, smiling as though already tasting victory. Marcus saw the man's fingers tighten around his mount's reins and, just as the horse turned, Marcus thrust his sword into

his midsection. He twisted the weapon, then yanked it free. The man cried out. He clutched his belly and slumped forward in the saddle. Blood gushed despite the arm he wrapped around himself. Marcus leapt forward and grabbed his shoulder. The Campbell swatted at him, his bloodsoaked arm leaving a streak of blood down his arm, but Marcus's fingers found

purchase, and he yanked him from the saddle. Marcus grabbed the pummel and pulled himself into the saddle in time to see his two men close in on the Campbell warrior who had shot past him. The man gave a violent slap of reins against his steed's rump in an effort to elude them. John lunged forward, swinging the blunt side of his sword across the horse's knee. The horse

stumbled, then fell to his knees, throwing its rider. Marcus wheeled his mount around to face the two Campbells who were nearly upon him when the thunder of hooves rolled down the mountainside. He cut his gaze to the left and saw a dozen MacGregor warriors speeding downhill. A woman cried out, then Elise shouted, "Marcus! They have Nell!"

He jerked his attention to the girl. His gut wrenched when one Campbell rounded his attention on Elise and stared. Marcus yanked his horse's reins to the right. The animal whirled and Marcus dug his heels into its flanks. In four great strides, he met his opponent's sword with his own. The Campbell pulled his mount hard left. Marcus gave his horse a fierce kick. The horse charged and he thrust

his sword into the Campbell's side even as the man's gaze met his. The man's eyes bulged. He reached out as if to grab Marcus. Marcus yanked his sword from the man's body. The man's mouth worked. Marcus whirled his horse toward the warrior who had captured Nell. The guards from Brahan Seer flew across the shore in his path, Erin in the lead.

"Erin!" Marcus shouted, then to one of the other men, "You!" Both men broke from their party and spun toward him. "Take her back to the keep." He jabbed his sword in Elise's direction. "Erin, you're with me." In an instant, the warrior reached Elise. She shook her head. "Take her!" Marcus ordered, and slapped the reins across his horse's rump.

He drove his mount, staying a nose ahead of Erin. Nell's heels unexpectedly kicked the belly of the Campbell's horse. Fight, lass, fight! Marcus urged. The Campbell's fisted hand rose and he tensed. The fist fell hard and Nell went limp. Marcus's blood froze. The ground softened as the shores of Loch Katrine changed from rocky sand to

marsh. Marcus smiled coldly. One had to know the land well to ride this section of the shore, which the Campbell warrior did not. The man's horse faltered. He glanced over his shoulder, then flung Nell to the ground. Erin cried out. An even darker rage shot through Marcus. They reached Nell. "Take her home!" Marcus shouted without stopping.

The Campbell's horse stumbled again, then crashed to the ground, pinning his rider's leg beneath him. The animal struggled to rise, gave a shrill whinny, then heaved his full weight onto the man's leg. The Campbell arched in pain. After an instant's heavy breathing, he craned his head in Marcus's direction. Marcus lifted his sword. In ten seconds, the warrior would be his. The man shoved

frantically at the horse's back, his gaze glued on Marcus. Marcus tightened his grip on the sword. The man's gaze shifted to the raised weapon. He leveraged a foot on the horse's back, pushing with all his might. Marcus discerned strain in his arm muscles as, with one great heave, the man slid his leg from beneath the horse. The warrior scrambled to his knees, lunging for his

sword as Marcus raised his weapon and cried, "Buadhaich!" With one mighty swing of the claymore, Marcus sliced across the man's neck. Marcus wheeled his horse around and, his gaze straight ahead, tread over the body as he raced toward home.

Chapter Eleven Marcus closed the door of his library with a deceptively soft click and raked his gaze across the men standing in tense silence. "We have a traitor. When I discover who that man is—" His glare halted on his father, who sat in the chair nearest the hearth. Marcus caught the

glitter of Cameron's eyes in the firelight before swinging his attention to Daniel. "You have made the changes in security?" "Aye, laird," Daniel said, his mouth grim. "Marcus," his father began. "Aye?" Marcus took two paces and halted abruptly beside his desk. Cameron sighed. "The attack took place

during the mid-afternoon change of guard." Marcus's words shook with the rage of self-reproach. "I should have realized—bloody hell, my thoughts were on what awaited me at the loch, just like those men who were hurrying from their duty at the wall. 'Tis true," he said, the reproach turned to bitterness, "logic bows to a man's cock." He had always been

prepared. The men who guarded the walls monitored the village to the east, the loch to the west, and the valley that stretched for miles to the south. The weight of guilt bore down in greater measure. His people depended upon him. Yet the enemy found a crack in his defenses. A shudder ran through him. Nell had very nearly been a casualty of his carelessness. Had Katie's life

been forfeit because of such negligence? Aye, she still lived, her heart beat, she breathed, but her mind had ceased to work. Her spirit lay hidden in some dark corner of her being. He had failed her, as he had nearly failed— Marcus slammed his fist down on the desk. "Who informed the Campbells of the routine? They attacked our women before our very eyes. Why such a bold

move?" Cameron answered in a low voice, "It doesn't seem strange to ye, lad, that we've had Campbells on our land three times in as many months?" Marcus's mouth hardened. "Aye. But why?" "Mayhap the why and who are the same?" Marcus stilled. "What do you mean?" They stared at one

another for a moment before Cameron said to the men, "Lads, leave me with my son." The men filed out, the last closing the door behind him. Cameron looked at Marcus. "You mean to say you don't know?" Marcus only looked at him and his father went on, "You know well enough the trouble began with Elise."

"Aye, they are using her —" "You are sure it's them using her?" Marcus started. A surge of anger rammed through him, the first genuine hostility he'd ever felt for his father. "Bloody hell, Cameron, you're saying Elise is in league with the Campbells. They nearly killed her." "Nay," Cameron replied. "In fact, the lass returned in

remarkably good shape." "The tracks I saw say otherwise." "You are a fine tracker, but you are no master. You should have had Johnson—" "I did take Johnson, if you recall," Marcus interrupted. "But he did not see the tracks you interpreted as her capture." "I made no mistake in my interpretation. What has

happened? You were in favor of my having her." "Aye," Cameron said. "And I like her. But that does not change the fact she is the most likely suspect." Elise's expression when he sent John with her to the loch came to mind. She had been angry. Any woman would be angry. He had nearly imprisoned her—and why? "She lived here four

months before I arrived with no such trouble," Marcus insisted. "Mayhap the Campbells intended you to want her so they could use her against you." Marcus laughed harshly. "The woman who escaped the Campbells was no collaborator. Nay, Cameron, you have no grounds for suspicion." "How long have they

hated us?" his father demanded with more vehemence than he'd heard in his voice since before his mother's death. Blood lust shot through Marcus. "I will kill every last one of them." "Aye. And condemn more men to die. What of their wives—their children?" "We have dealt with them for years—centuries," Marcus snapped.

Cameron grunted. "King George is likely to tire completely of the fight and finance the MacGregor's annihilation." Though King George had remained quiet, Marcus knew the king forbade any Campbell reprisal after Marcus attacked Assipatle in retaliation for Katie MacGregor's rape. His intervention had saved many lives. But the sovereign's

mood swung between reality and fantasy, his mind controlled by liquor and the laudanum he kept ready at his bedside. Where his loyalties would lie tomorrow was anyone's guess. "If he takes that course of action, he'll regret it as long as I draw breath," Marcus bit back. Cameron slumped against the chair cushion. "I dinna' want to bury my only

son." He looked directly into Marcus's eyes. "You have a son. What will be his legacy?" "By God, Cameron, you would have me believe Elise is a spy and, in the same breath, demand I change the course of the raging river that is the Campbells." He strode to the door. "I will keep you apprised of my progress in discovering our traitor's identity." He yanked open the

door. "Rest assured, when I find the guilty party—no matter who they are—there will be no place for them on this earth, save the grave." Minutes later, Marcus entered the kitchen and scanned the busy room. "Winnie, where's Elise?" Winnie turned from the counter, tray in hand, and handed it to a girl waiting nearby. "With Nell." "Nell?" he demanded in a

voice which quieted the bustle in the kitchen. "Aye." "Elise dared leave the keep after today—and especially at night?" "So far as I know, she did not step foot outside the walls. I settled Nell in my cottage. With her mother dead and her aunt run off to wed, Elise offered to sit with her." He winced when Winnie added, "I feared leaving her

alone." Winnie grasped a pitcher of water sitting on the cabinet. "Back to work," she ordered the women, shoving the pitcher toward a girl who took it and scurried toward the great hall. Winnie focused again on him. "Elise will not be here for the evening meal then?" he asked. "I sent their meals to my cottage." Marcus gave a curt nod,

then strode past the women and out the back door. When he arrived at the cottage, he knocked lightly. Hearing no answer, he pushed the door open to find food sitting on the table untouched and both women missing. Marcus hurried back to the castle. He looked in Elise's room. His heart rate kicked up at finding it empty. He went next to the ladies' drawing room, but even as he

opened the door he sensed the silence. Dread coiled tight in his gut at sight of the empty room. If she wasn't inside the keep and she hadn't attempted to pass through the gates, only one answer remained: she had left through the passageway leading from the dungeons. Why go to such lengths to leave unseen? His father's words earlier returned, "…she is the most

likely suspect." He remembered her agitation when he sent John with her. She couldn't be the traitor, it simply wasn't possible. Why, his mind asked? Because you love her? "Yes," he snarled, and slammed the door. She could be in his library. But even the warmth that wafted out to meet him as he opened the library door didn't dispel the deadly

silence. He looked at the chair his father had occupied earlier—the chair he had discovered Elise curled up in on many occasions. "Mayhap the why and the who are the same," his father had said. Marcus shook himself from the vise which gripped him, then closed the door on the vacant room. He considered employing more men in the search. Nay. If he found evidence of her

culpability, he would deal with her before he could change his mind. He strode down the corridor, continuing through the castle until reaching the last sconce burning in that wing of the castle. He disengaged the light from the wall, then took the final steps to the staircase leading into the bowels of Brahan Seer. Narrow step after narrow step, Marcus wound his way

down to what, during his grandfather's rule, had been dungeons where he incarcerated criminals such as the one who betrayed them that afternoon. He paused in the long corridor before one of the cells and gave the door a shove. With a grinding creak, the heavy iron swung open. The sconce's flame jumped as if gasping for breath. Marcus settled his gaze

on the iron shackles hanging on the far wall in open defiance of time's passage. How would a woman survive chained in those irons? If Elise braved these dungeons, had even a tremor passed through her when she hurried by these rooms of torture? What sort of woman entered such a place? A woman with something to hide. He hurried past the cell

to the next right turn, stopping at the sudden dead end. Squatting, Marcus lowered the sconce and slowly edged the light forward in order to examine the stone floor and discerned a single set of boot prints beneath the thin layer of dust. His heart pounded against his chest. He jerked the sconce up, searching the wall for the hairline crack recognizable only to one who knew it

existed. He found the seam and depressed the spot. The panel sprang open with a squeal. Marcus rose and stepped inside the passageway. Sconce low, he proceeded slowly, inspecting the packed dirt floor until he reached the end of the passageway. He faced left where lay the concealed door which opened to the outside and pushed against the door. The stone

slid noiselessly open and he stepped into the night. Ten minutes later, Marcus entered the kitchen again. "Elise is not to be found." He stopped before Winnie. "Surely ye aren't worried," she said, but Marcus had caught the flicker of surprise in her expression. "Who took the meal to them?" "Bartholomew."

He started for the door. "By now he's on duty at the wall," she called as he disappeared into the darkness. Moments later, Marcus mounted the battlement stairs and found Bartholomew standing guard on the west corner of the wall. The guard straightened at his approach. "You delivered the food to the women in Winnie's cottage?" Marcus demanded. "Aye, laird."

"Were the women in the cottage when you arrived?" Bartholomew shook his head. Marcus narrowed his eyes. "And you thought nothing of it?" He swallowed. "I didn't know I should." Marcus hesitated, then turned and hurried along the battlements and down the stairs. He returned to Winnie's cottage but found

nothing changed. This time, when he entered the kitchen, Winnie halted the task of pulling scones from their baking pan and watched his approach. He stopped beside the table. "They weren't in the cottage when Bartholomew delivered the meal." Her gaze moved past him. "What's wrong?" came Elise's voice at his back.

He pivoted to face her. Nell stood alongside her. "Where the blazes have you been?" Elise's brow snapped into a frown. "Well?" "We were on the hill, near the storehouse," she replied. Marcus looked at Nell. "Aye, laird, we—" she looked at Elise. "What is it?" he

demanded. "We were star gazing," Elise said in a reprimand. He glanced at her, then looked back at Nell. "You two have been together all evening?" "Aye," she said, obviously confused. "By God," he muttered, and advanced toward them. Elise blinked and Nell retreated a pace, but he continued forward. When

within reach of them, he grabbed Elise's wrist and started toward the great hall. Several men stared from the doorway. "Be about your business," he ordered. The men scattered in a hurried scuffle as he pulled Elise through the doorway and into the noisy hall. The din quieted slightly, men parting as he strode to the stairway.

"Marcus, what—" "Hush," he commanded without looking back at her. She didn't balk until they reached the door to her bedchamber. There, she yanked her hand free of his grasp. He whirled on her. "Where were you?" "I told you." "I searched all of Brahan Seer." "Clearly not all, or you

would have found us. Ridiculous," she added in a mutter. "You act as if we need worry while inside the keep." "Worry?" he repeated. "The Campbells meant harm, Elise. Did you think I would let them touch you?" Her brow furrowed. He discerned the quick lift and fall of her breasts, the surprise—uncertainty perhaps? His body tightened.

He realized the desire to take her with quick and hard actions. "No," she replied. He jarred from the erotic picture of her against the wall, him pressed between her legs. "Seeing you"—she faltered—"seeing them…" She shook her head, ending with a quiet, "It was strange." "The Highlands are far more violent than Boston," he shot back.

She hesitated and his blood chilled when he realized it wasn't the violence of the Highlands that had startled her, but the violence in him. He felt anew the cut of his sword through Campbell flesh. He tensed, this time in fury. "God damn bastards," he whispered, "they knew exactly what they were doing." "What do you mean?"

He watched her carefully. "They knew when to attack—were aware of our weakness." "Weakness?" "Their attack coincided with the change of guard." A tiny pause, then she said, "But that would mean —" She gasped. "That's not possible." "Aye, 'tis not only possible, but true." She shook her head

vehemently. "I don't believe it." The swirl of her hair, the tight-lipped determination, cut Marcus to the quick and he suddenly wished for nothing more than to hold her, to feel her heart beat against his chest as she slept in his arms. She fastened her gaze on him and he registered the lines of strain around her eyes. "To bed," he said, and

opened her bedchamber door. "And don't leave your room again this night." She started to protest, but he shoved her inside and closed the door behind her. Marcus still gripped the handle. God damn it, he'd allowed his father's suspicions to poison his thoughts. Elise had been with Nell all evening. She wasn't the traitor… unless she had made those boot prints in the

dungeon some time before tonight. * * * * The following afternoon, Marcus entered his library to find Elise sitting in the chair before a low burning fire, looking just as he prayed he'd find her the night before. She jumped, the book she was clearly not reading sliding from her lap to the carpet. He closed the door behind him. "You are the

most unpredictable creature." She bent to retrieve the book. "What have I done now?" She placed the book beside her on the chair. Marcus walked to her and squatted beside the chair. He ran a finger down her arm. "Nothing, love. I'm preparing to leave for London and my mind is elsewhere." He smiled slightly. "It is my own shortcomings that plague me today. Not you."

Elise frowned. "Your shortcomings?" He rose and strode to the sideboard "Never mind." He poured a drink. "It doesn't concern you." A pause followed, then she said, "I think it does." At her clipped tone, he looked over his shoulder. Her lips were pursed. Despite his mood, he smiled ruefully. "I am no fool, Marcus MacGregor," she said.

He raised a brow. "What shortcomings?" she demanded. Marcus remained silent. She shrugged. "I can easily find out." He turned, leaving his drink untouched, and leaned against the sideboard. "How do you propose to do that?" Elise slid him a sidelong glance. "Milord, do you think you are the only one with powers of persuasion?"

The sensual lift of her mouth startled him. He couldn't believe it. Was the little minx threatening to use her charms against him? A thrill reverberated deep within him. Lounging against the chair, she tipped her head back. His excitement grew as, closing her eyes, she reached back to tousle her hair. The locks cascaded in silken layers about her shoulders. Her fingers slid from her hair

and along her throat. His body tightened when her fingertips skimmed the valley between her breasts. Her palms flattened across her belly, smoothing her dress, and finally came to rest in her lap. She toyed with him—but he wanted her. He commanded his gaze to break from the sultry picture, but his mind refused to comply. Elise patted the tiny space on the seat beside her.

"Come sit with me, milord." Her use of "milord" tantalized him, despite the knowledge she used the title only when angry or mocking him. "Nay, lass. I think not." "Afraid?" She gave a low laugh. Confound the woman! She hadn't even bothered to open her eyes when addressing him. "Not afraid, love," he replied. "Cautious."

"Ah, I see." Aye, he was sure she did. She stretched her legs in one fluid motion. She opened her eyes and, leaning forward, shook out her skirt, a flash of white chemise showing before the fabric settled about her. She rose and glided over to him. "If you're not in the mood," she tugged the collar on his shirt, "we can discuss this later."

She smoothed his shirt with the same maddening slowness she had used when straightening her dress. When her fingers tucked his shirt into the waistband of his kilt, he yanked her to him. "You're playing with fire," he said. She gazed up at him. "Am I?" He bent to kiss her, but she dodged his mouth. He lifted a questioning brow and

she met his gaze. "You won't sit with me yet have no qualms about accosting me? Are you not tired?' she asked abruptly. "Nay." "Good. Then we shall talk." Extricating herself from his hold, she wrapped a hand around his forearm and led him to the couch. Elise directed him down onto a cushion, then knelt on the

cushion beside him. "You are much too tense." She turned his back toward her. With great care, she massaged the hard muscle of his shoulder. Marcus felt himself relax. He closed his eyes, contemplating ways to entice her hands lower. He became aware of her breath on his neck. He throbbed, anticipating her quick intake of breath when her gaze fell

upon the noticeable lift of his kilt. She shifted and her breath came hot in his ear. Marcus shuddered as her lips brushed his ear. "It wasn't your fault, you know." His eyes flashed open and he twisted to face her. "I will not discuss this with you." She shrugged, then nearly bounced into a sitting position beside him. "That

doesn't change the fact I'm right." "You know nothing of it," he snapped. "I know enough." Marcus faced her. Words poured from his mouth even as he blushed at defending his actions to a woman— especially this woman. "It is my responsibility to see that no harm comes to any here. I nearly failed." "But you didn't."

The flat response brought him up short. She shook her head as if speaking to a child. "You found a flaw in your defenses. Do you think it's the only one?" Fear rushed through him. He hadn't considered there could be a single flaw, much less two, three or… Elise took his hand in hers. "You aren't God. Close, perhaps," she gave a faint

smile, "but still human. I understand how difficult this is, but you must accept the fact that, like most mortals, you are flawed." She paused. "Those attackers will never harm another person, and you learned a valuable lesson. Most would count themselves fortunate. Don't look so sullen. I am sure you will find a way to assuage your anger." Marcus blinked, then grasped her shoulders and

tugged her across his thighs. He pressed his lips to her ear and murmured, "What am I to do with you?" Elise lifted a brow, saying, "Certainly not what you think," and gingerly shifted in his lap. * * * * Marcus looked past his father and the other people crowding the courtyard until his gaze fixed upon Elise. She stood with a group of women,

rifling through a basket of provisions they were distributing to the men who were to accompany him to London. Cameron clasped his shoulder. "All will be well." He glanced meaningfully at Elise, his hand dropping back to his side. Marcus focused on his father. "She isn't to leave Brahan Seer while I am away."

"Aye." "If Loudoun doesn't agree to intervene with his clansmen, I will seek an audience with King George." Cameron nodded. "The earl willna' relish the possibility of losing his property to one of our attacks. Castle Kalchurn is his pride and joy." "I plan on using that fact," Marcus replied. He nodded toward Elise. "I had

better say my good-byes." Marcus strode to Elise. The warrior she handed a small cloth package to grasped it and murmured thanks before joining his nearby comrades. She turned, taking a surprised step back when she nearly collided with Marcus. "You will honor your promise?" he asked. "I won't leave Brahan Seer."

She couldn't leave. He had seen to that. The passageway had been boarded shut and the guards had orders not to let her pass. Marcus drew her to him. His heart pounded with every halting step closer she allowed until he could wrap his arm around her. Marcus cupped her neck in his free hand. Her gaze flitted to the side, but he cared nothing for the crowd. He kissed her. The

familiar hunger lashed out. Had she any understanding of his need for her? She had called it lust. By God, he did lust after her. Marcus took a long draught of her. When he returned, he would have set in motion what he should have done a month ago: discover her identity. He released her and motioned to the man who stood near the gate holding his horse's reins. The man

pushed through the crowd and stopped beside him, reins extended. Marcus mounted, then paused, locking gazes with Elise. "Elise." She waited. "I will return." It seemed she didn't breathe. "Be ready when I do." * * * * Three days away from Brahan Seer—from Elise—

had taken a toll. Marcus looked up from the letter he was reading to the grandfather clock in the far corner of the study in his London home. He curbed a growing irritation. He'd been forced to follow the Earl of Loudoun to London, and now that Marcus awaited his arrival, the fool had the temerity to be late. Marcus finished the drink sitting before him, then returned his

attention to the note sent to him by Margaret's father, Lord Ross. Marcus, the note began, I was unexpectedly called to London and have just learned of your arrival two days ago. He gave a low laugh. "You hate London nearly as much as I do. What story did Margaret concoct to coerce you into accompanying her?" Marcus continued reading the note. Lady Ross is giving a

ball tomorrow evening. I trust you will have time to attend. Marcus tossed the invitation aside. "You trust wrong, Ferris. I have no interest in seeing your daughter." Marcus looked up from reading the Sunday Times when a knock sounded on the door nearly an hour later. The door opened and his butler entered. "The Earl of Loudoun to

see you, Lord Ashlund." Marcus glanced at the clock. An hour and a half late. "Show him in, Bower." Marcus refolded the paper and laid it on the desk as Loudoun entered. He bowed. "Lord Ashlund, it has been some time." Marcus indicated the chair in front of his desk. "It has," he said, noting Loudoun hadn't had the good grace to

acknowledge his tardiness. It was impossible to civilize a cur. The earl seated himself. "I understand you wish to see me on a matter of some importance." Bored amusement shone in his green eyes. "Have you seen your Hastings clansmen lately?" Marcus asked without preamble. Surprise flitted across

Loudoun's features, but he replied, the boredom reaching his voice, "Haven't been to Scotland in an age. Why?" "They attacked a group of women at Brahan Seer." Surprise resurfaced. Then… satisfaction in the guise of disbelief. "Come now," he drawled. "Surely, you are mistaken." "I was there." "I suppose one cannot question the word of the

Marquess of Ashlund. Was your father, the duke, there as well?" "Nay. You know anything of the attack?" "Me?" The earl laughed. "I never involve myself in the petty squabbles on that side of the family." He studied Marcus. "Attacked your women, did they?" Marcus nodded. Loudoun shrugged. "Probably just wanted a bit of

sport. Why bother yourself? If someone had been hurt or if it had been cattle—" "Do not try my temper," Marcus cut in. "You know nothing of it?" "As I said, I have little to do with those barbarians." "In that you may be wise. I assume you still exercise some authority over them?" "I suppose so. Can't say I've ever cared to try. Their actions are their own, so long

as they don't interfere with my life." "Spoken like a true Campbell," Marcus muttered. Loudoun's eyes flickered, and there was a biting edge in his cultured voice when he said, "Unlike you, Ashlund, I am far removed from those people. I don't live in the wilds of Scotland, yearning for the days of old." "It isn't the days of old I yearn for, but, like any

civilized man, simple peace. Yet, it is your clansmen who make that impossible." "Mayhap you should appeal to our king. He is in a better position than I to help." "Mayhap," Marcus agreed. "Unfortunately, he's not in England. I should warn you, if trouble arises before he returns, you may find your clansmen intruding upon your life. Castle Kalchurn is between Brahan Seer and

Assipattle, if I recall." The earl's face tightened. "You have no cause to threaten me, MacGregor. I've done nothing. I am not involved in this matter, I tell you." "Ah, but you are. Despite your complacent attitude, you would not be saddened to hear of my demise or the demise of any MacGregor, for that matter—man or woman—which makes you as

guilty as your kinsmen. Now," Marcus leaned forward, elbows on his desk, "if there's a possibility you can get to the bottom of this before it turns into something we will all regret, you would find me most appreciative." "Just what the devil does that mean?" Loudoun demanded. "It means, my dear Earl, that I might refrain from running a sword through your

black heart." * * * * Marcus found Kiernan at his favorite club. Pausing to observe his son as he lounged in one of the plush chairs, pride filled his heart at the man the boy was becoming. Kiernan's brow furrowed in response to something he read in the paper spread across the arm of his chair, and a tenderness stirred in Marcus at recalling where

Kiernan had learned that look. It amazed him how much the boy resembled Jenna. The old sadness revived in Marcus. There had been no great love between him and Jenna. The marriage could have been better. She hadn't been happy. Despite his noble blood, he was a Highlander— a clan leader—and Jenna couldn't comprehend the archaic way of life. Marcus

hadn't been able to find it in his heart to blame her. She was of Scottish blood, not Highland. Never the twain shall meet, she had once said. Still, he grieved when she died. Kiernan, a boy of ten, had been inconsolable. Marcus worried his son had never quite forgiven the world for taking her from him. Even now, he glimpsed flashes of resentment. They were rare, but the emotion ran

deep. Kiernan always seemed to ask—to demand—why Marcus had been unable to save her when she'd been thrown from her horse. She hadn't died immediately. It would have been better if she had. Instead, she'd lingered a day, an afternoon, really. Kiernan had stolen into his mother's room while she lay dying. Jenna hadn't wakened. Whether that was better or not, Marcus had

never been sure. But Kiernan had said his good-byes. Marcus recalled seeing the lad on his knees beside his mother's bed. When he entered the room, Kiernan remained motionless. Neither moved for some time. At last, the boy rose and left. Marcus shook off the morose memories. He crossed the room. Kiernan looked up from the paper. His face brightened and he stood,

flashing a smile that dispelled the fear in Marcus's earlier memory. He grasped his son's hand and pulled him close. They separated. "What brings you to London again so soon?" Kiernan pointed to a chair next to his, then sat. "I hadn't thought you'd be here until spring." "Not glad to see me?" Marcus chided. A corner of Kiernan's

mouth lifted a little higher. "Never say you braved London for me. Why, Father, I don't know what to say." He motioned to a steward. "Two brandies," he said when the man reached hearing distance, then turned his attention back to Marcus. "Or are you missing city life?" Marcus grimaced. "Nay. I had business with Loudoun." Kiernan's smile vanished.

"Damnation, Father, what sort of business?" "Unsavory business." Kiernan grunted. "That's about the only sort you could have with him." Marcus gave an account of recent events. When he'd finished, he took the final swallow of his brandy. An all-too-familiar gleam entered his son's eyes. "Perhaps I should return to Brahan Seer. You can use all

the help you can get. I'm handy with a sword, if you recall." He flashed a cocky grin. Aye, Marcus recalled all too well. His son had nearly bested him with his own sword just last year. Damn, the lad was truly grown. "I do have some good news," Marcus said. He paused. "I am to marry." Kiernan looked as if he had been hit in the belly.

Marcus gave a quick explanation. A moment later, Kiernan shook his head, his expression disbelieving. "You say she hasn't actually consented?" "Aye." "Isn't an announcement a bit premature?" "No announcements. I am telling only you." Marcus watched his son. He hoped to glean some

insight into Kiernan's thoughts but, aside from obvious shock, he displayed no other emotion. The boy had grown too skilled at hiding the workings of his mind. "Nothing to say on the matter?" Marcus finally asked outright. "I assume you care for her." "I do." "Then congratulations

are in order." "Aye," Marcus replied, while wondering exactly how he would get Elise to agree. His gaze fell to the Sunday Times still open on the arm of Kiernan's chair. "Let me see that." He nodded toward the paper.

Chapter Twelve The afternoon sun hung low in the overcast sky when Elise came to an abrupt halt outside the storehouse located in the southeast corner of Brahan Seer's compound. Marcus strode past the children playing at the bottom of the hill, headed up in her direction. Her grip on the

small sack of flour she held tightened. He'd been gone less than a week. He hadn't delayed in returning to Brahan Seer—neither had he delayed in seeking her out. She had left the kitchen a few minutes ago and he hadn't been there. He could have only just arrived. Only one thing would cause him to come for her before even his horse could be unsaddled: he had found the notice and

made the connection between Elise Merriwether and Elisabeth Kingston. Her heart pounded against her ribs and she had to force herself not to run. Where would you go? she asked herself. He made escape impossible. You think he couldn't find you within the confines of Brahan Seer? He crested the hill and their gazes met. Her breath caught at the haggard look in his

eyes. He knows. The children's shouts melted into the background as he halted so close, the warmth of his breath displaced the cool, early summer air against her face. She dropped her gaze and bit back tears. Why did he torture her so? "Hello, love," he murmured. Elise jerked her gaze up

to his. No anger shone in his eyes. He tugged the sack of flour from her grasp and let it drop to the ground, then wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her close. Passion shot between them in a blazing kiss. She gasped when he showered lush kisses along her chin and down the base of her throat. She inhaled his scent and nearly cried when the familiar fragrance engulfed her

senses. Marcus wrapped his free arm around her and gave her a fierce hug. "I missed ye." He leaned back and looked into her eyes. Her heart leapt with joy and sorrow in unison. Would it have been better for him to have found the wanted notice and confront her? He brushed aside locks of hair the breeze had blown across her cheek. He crooked a finger under her

chin and tilted her face up toward his. Her cheeks warmed and she flicked a glance at the children who seemed oblivious of them. He stroked her lips with his thumb. A dangerous grin flashed across his face. "Wha—" Marcus dragged her behind the thick brush around back of the storehouse. He glanced at the massive oak tree behind them.

"Marcus—" He backed her against the tree and pinned her with his body. "You can't be seri—" The protest was cut off as much by the sudden awareness of the hard length of him pressing into her thigh as by his kiss. Marcus broke the embrace just as abruptly as he'd begun, ending the kiss with a loud smacking sound.

Elise stared. He grinned. She shoved at his chest. He bent over her once more and she heard his quiet laugh before his mouth covered hers. He parted her lips with his tongue, not asking, but taking. He shifted and the vague awareness of his fingers closing around her wrists penetrated her consciousness. He lifted her hands above her head, pressing them against the tree

as he leaned his weight against her. A tremor ripped through her and her body coiled in readiness for the hard press of him against her thigh again. But Marcus released her mouth and, dipping his head, nipped at her flesh from cheek to ear. "I haven't forgotten how mercilessly you teased me before I left." He rocked against her. The press of him against her weakened her

knees. "Feel what you do to me, sweet," he said. Elise inhaled sharply. "Aye," he whispered. Marcus rocked again, then again. She arched as he kissed his way down her neck. He released her hands and tugged down her bodice. "Marcus!" She forgot the remonstration as his weight lifted from her and he bent, his wet mouth closing over a nipple.

Desire spiked through her. His tongue circled the nipple, then released it. She closed her eyes, shivering as the wind slid across her breast, puckering the bud to a hard peak. Marcus abruptly pulled her away from the tree. She snapped open her eyes. He eased her to the ground. The scent of crushed ivy ground cover enveloped her as he came down beside her. "They're expecting me to

return with the flour," she said. "When I don't—" "They know I came in search of you." He slipped a knee between her legs. "They won't come." He covered a breast with his palm and slowly teased the nipple with his thumb, while kissing the other breast. His mouth captured the nipple and a rush of pleasure shot from both breasts to the juncture between her legs. He

lifted his head and she forced her eyes into focus. His gaze remained fastened on hers as he ran a hand along her ribs. His palm glided past her waist, then along her thigh. He grabbed a fistful of her skirt and pulled it up. She gasped at the feel of his warm hand flattening against her skin, then caressing her inner thigh. "Marcus," she whispered. He said nothing, only

continued caressing upward until his fingers tickled the hair between her legs. She tensed. He kissed the swell of her breast, her neck, her ear, then her mouth, lengthening the kiss as he slipped a finger between her folds. His thumb brushed the nub swollen with desire. She clutched his shoulders. His muscles tensed beneath her fingers. She ached to feel those arms around her. He stroked her

deliberately while slipping another finger inside. He released her mouth and leaned his forehead against hers. His breathing grew ragged as he thrust gently with his fingers. His thumb stroked in quicker movements. Pleasure swirled in a restless coil deep insider her, spiking up in wide ribbons of intensity that took her breath away. Marcus nuzzled her neck.

"Come to me." She started at the whispered words. "Come to me," he repeated. And she did. * * * * Elise took one of the scones Jinny had baked that evening from the pan on the kitchen counter. They were still warm to the touch. She pulled the tartan covering her shoulders closer as she

stuffed half the scone into her mouth and leaned against the counter. Despite a large supper and wine, she had been unable to sleep. Two glasses of wine hadn't been enough. She should have made it three. At least she would have slept, even if fitfully. Why had she let Marcus touch her? When he left for London, she had counted on him being away longer than

seven days and intended on being gone before he returned. Given enough time, Cameron would have seen her confinement for the prison sentence it was. She had planned on approaching him with care. When he thought she had been wronged by Margaret, he understood her desire to leave. An out-and-out demand for release, however, would be viewed with

suspicion. After all, why would a woman with only fifty pounds to her name and no place to go want to leave? She finished the second half of the scone. If she had listened to her head and not her heart and had shunned Marcus… Elise gave a mirthless laugh. She hadn't— and now she had to deal with him while searching for the secret passage Winnie had spoken of.

She reached for another scone, then decided to take some to her room. She found a cloth napkin in the cabinet and wrapped two scones. Male voices sounded in the direction of the great hall as she had folded the napkin's last flap. Elise cocked an ear. They approached from the hall leading from the main entrance. Scooping up the scones, she froze at sound of

a familiar laugh. Marcus. She tightened her hold on the tartan and darted through the kitchen door toward the stairs but was still half a dozen steps from the concealment offered by the staircase when the men burst into the room. Their laughter ceased. Marcus's "Good evening, lass. What mischief brings you to the great hall tonight?" stopped Elise. She gripped the tartan more tightly about

her throat and turned, lifting her hand to display the wrapped scones. The men looked at the proffered scones and burst into laughter. She began to relax, then caught sight of Marcus's intense gaze. * * * * The colors of the throw Elise wore dissolved in Marcus's mind in a blur of red and blue to the memory of her lying alongside him in the

ivy. He felt again her body as she trembled beneath his hand, the moist heat of her— "Good night, gentlemen," she said. Marcus jerked his attention back to her as she turned to the staircase and started up. He brushed past his comrades and hurried after her. She paused midway up the staircase and looked over her shoulder. He continued forward and she

hurried up the stairs and down the corridor to her bedchamber door where she whirled to face him. "Marcus, perhaps—" He leaned forward, his shoulder brushing hers as he reached around her and pushed open the door. The door swung wide and he cupped her bottom, lifting her from the floor. She squeaked and threw her arms around his neck, dropping the plaide

and the scones. He stepped inside, kicked the door shut, and took the final steps to the bed. He fell atop her on the soft mattress. "I need you," he whispered. The spicy scent of clean bed linen met his nostrils as he kissed her. The fire crackled and it seemed the heat in his blood ignited in unison. Elise gripped his shoulders. The power in her

hold belied the soft compliance of her lips. Marcus ended the kiss. He rose to his knees and pulled her up and off the bed with him. He tugged the straps of her night rail down over her shoulders, forcing her arms down so that the garment skimmed along her body and pooled at her feet. His heart hammered. At last, she willingly stood before him, soft curves his to touch,

her charms his to take. He forced back the need to crush her beneath him and pound into her heat with all the force in his body and drew her into his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder. He held her quietly until the pounding in his ears dulled to a low roar, then bent and brushed his lips across hers. When Marcus lifted his head, he held her gaze as he rotated his hips against her.

Uncertainty played across her face. She dropped her lashes at the second, more ardent grinding of his arousal against her mound. He stepped back and she looked up in surprise. He raked his gaze over her, then brought his attention back to her face. A furious blush crept up her cheeks. He unbuttoned his shirt and dropped the garment on the floor. His left boot

followed, then the right, leaving him standing in nothing but his kilt. Marcus studied her as he removed his belt and let it, along with the kilt, fall to the floor. The belt buckle clinked on the stone, but Elise's eyes remained fixed on his face. He took the few steps to her and, grasping her wrist, gently brought her hand to his shaft. Her gaze jerked down to where he firmly held her. He wrapped

her fingers around him and nearly came to his knees at the cool feel of her fingers against his pounding heat. "Do I frighten you, lass?" he asked. Her head snapped up. "No." Marcus gave a hoarse laugh. Bloody hell, mayhap she wasn't afraid, but he was. He picked her up and carried her to the bed. Placing her on the mattress, he lay down

beside her. He ignored the hammering in his head and ran a shaky finger along her arm. "I'll be gentle," he said. She frowned. "I won't break." "Nay, love," he agreed. "But compared to me, you are naught but a feather." Elise sat upright. "I am no porcelain doll to be kept on a shelf." Marcus opened his

mouth to deny the implication but stopped. "Is that how your husband treated you?" A long silence drew out. "You cannot compare me to him," Marcus finally said. "I'm no fool." She blinked, then rolled to her side and started toward the edge of the bed. "Nay." Marcus grabbed her. "You can leave now." She twisted as he yanked her

back. "Nay." He rolled on top of her. "Hush," he commanded when she opened her mouth. He kissed her. She pressed herself into the mattress, but he lengthened the kiss. She wriggled as though to sidle out from beneath him, rocking their bodies together. Pleasure shot through him. Marcus ended the kiss, breathing hard.

"Elise," he whispered hoarsely, "you are not discouraging me." She ceased. Marcus slipped a knee between her legs. "I am a fool," he said. "I wanted you the moment I laid eyes on you. You know that." He reached between them and drew apart the folds that protected her sex. He feared, at first, she would resist in earnest and he would

be forced to spend yet another night without her, but an instant later, she wrapped her arms about his neck. Marcus touched her in heated strokes. He breathed deep of her scent filling his nostrils, stroking, petting until, at last, she cried out and buried her head in his shoulder. He trailed a long, moist kiss from her ear to a breast, taking the hardened nipple in his mouth. "Marcus," she groaned.

He continued to tease her while settling himself between her legs. He probed for entrance into her body, aware of the sudden rise and fall of her breast, the subtle tension in her. His body tensed in response, hungry for the resistance. The tip of his shaft slipped into the moist opening. "You're ready for me," he rasped, and in one swift motion, thrust.

Her nails pierced the flesh of his shoulders. She stiffened. Marcus stilled, waves of pleasure radiating from his groin. He took a shaky breath and focused on her face. His mind instantly cleared at sight of the drawn brow and hard lines around her mouth. "Bloody hell," he cursed. "I hurt you." "No," she denied so quickly he wouldn't have

believed the pope had he said she spoke the truth. "You may be no porcelain doll," he muttered, "but you aren't to be misused." "You don't understand —" "I understand well enough." He began to lift himself off her. Elise held fast to his shoulders. "You do not, but it doesn't matter. If you will just

continue, it will pass." He frowned. "If you think I could misuse you—" "Good Lord." She rolled her eyes. "What in God's name has possessed you this evening?" he demanded, feeling frustration grow and himself soften. "You, I thought." Marcus blinked. He stared at her face for a moment, then dropped his

gaze to her breasts. The nipples no longer stood erect. He lowered himself so that his chest brushed the soft peaks. They instantly stiffened. He hardened. He shifted slightly, gasping as the tight passage closed in around him in a hold he hadn't recalled since— Marcus froze, jerking his attention back to Elise's taut face—since he'd bedded Jenna on their wedding night.

She'd been the only virgin he'd ever had, but the memory remained vivid. However, there had been no maidenhead with Elise. She had been married, had a child. She was no virgin. "Elise," he said in a low voice, "how long since your husband bedded you?" Her stricken look and the sudden moisture in her eyes told him all he needed to know.

"Love," he said, lowering his mouth to kiss her. She turned her head aside. "Please." Marcus kissed her neck instead. Not the kiss of passion he would have given her a moment ago, but a gentle, reassuring kiss. "The man was a fool," he muttered, and moved inside her, slowly this time. Her hold remained firm, but she shook her head

slightly, refusing to look at him. Marcus lifted his weight from her, withdrawing slowly, then entering again with a quick but shallow thrust. He didn't mistake her tiny intake of breath, then the rise of her body to meet his next thrust. He pulled away, while running his tongue along the edge of her ear. When he thrust again, Elise wrapped her arms around his neck. He kissed her cheek,

the corner of her mouth, then coaxed her to him, kissing her full on the mouth. She wound a leg around his calf and he thrust hard and deep before realizing the action. He stilled. She opened her eyes. He saw no fear, only the question, Why have you stopped? He was a fool. Marcus moved again and again and again, until her arms tightened around his back and her walls closed

around his shaft as she cried out in her pleasure. When the blinding light of climax shot through his body, he poured himself into her and knew he would never let her go. * * * * Elise sat at Marcus's desk in the library and stared at the wanted notice in the Sunday Times dated the weekend he had been in London. American-born

Elisabeth Kingston wanted for murder is believed to have perished at sea off the coast of Scotland. A tenthousand-pound reward is offered for information leading to the whereabouts of her body. Anyone with information contact Drew Cummins, Attorney at Law… She closed her eyes,

willing her pounding heart to slow. If this paper had been meant for Michael, why had it sat folded on Marcus's desk the last four days? The man who had demanded the Campbells deliver Shamus's killer to him wouldn't overlook a wife murdering her husband. Marcus's anger at discovering that the woman he wanted to marry was a wanted criminal like

Shamus's murderer would be even greater. She had eluded Price these past months. After what happened between her and Marcus last night, could she hide from him? * * * * Marcus strode across the courtyard toward the gate. The drizzling rain, which had fallen since dawn, now turned into the large drops promised by the dark, low clouds. He would be surprised if Elise

had ventured into the village on such a dreary summer day. In fact, he had expected her to be shut up in his library. He felt again the acute disappointment at not being able to make love to her before a low fire as he'd planned. A moment later, he stood on the battlements, scanning the path leading into the village but saw no one approaching. He shifted his

gaze to the dark shadows concealing the secret passage, then turned and surveyed the courtyard. The rain hadn't interfered with the daily goings on. People traveled to and from the castle and among the cottages beyond the bailey. He scanned the grounds, his gaze centering on Winnie's cottage in the distance. He started to turn from the deserted-looking

building when the door opened and a woman stepped out. Marcus studied the figure as she hurried down the single step onto the ground and started in the direction of the castle. He followed her progress until he discerned Mary's features, then turned from the wall. Perhaps she knew something of Elise's whereabouts. A moment later, he pushed through the postern door and strode through the

eating hall to the kitchen. Mary appeared in the kitchen's back door as he entered. "Have you seen Elise?" he demanded without preamble. The girl paused in the doorway. "N-nay, laird." Marcus surveyed the women in the room, all of whom had stopped their work and were looking at him. "No one here knows where

Winnie is?" A general "nay" went up and he turned from the kitchen. Where the bloody hell was Elise? And as for Winnie… A cursory investigation of the castle turned up no sign of Elise. Only three weeks earlier he had been searching for her in much the same manner. Her absence then was innocent enough. Yet the

number of times she had gone to Michael's against his express command, combined with last month's disappearance, unsettled him. Two hours later, after a more thorough search, including the dungeons, Marcus stalked toward Winnie's cottage. The secret passageway had become his nemesis. At every turn, he feared Elise had somehow managed to escape through it,

despite the fact he'd had it sealed from the outside. He found Winnie's cottage empty. Marcus worked his way through the keep, his temper rising with every step. At last, he reached Lauren's home. Aye, she'd seen Elise, only that had been over an hour ago. He strode from her cottage, across the compound, and into the kitchen. Winnie, this time, sat at the table, plucking a

chicken, just as she should have been. "So, milady," he said, bringing her attention to him, along with that of the other women in the room, "you have returned to the roost." Winnie looked up from yanking tail feathers from her victim's rump. "Have you seen Elise?" Comprehension shone on her face. "Don't play games with

me, Winnie," he warned. "You have seen Elise. I can see it in your eyes." "No need to get testy." She turned to her chicken. "Try the women's drawing room." Another five minutes and Marcus shoved open the drawing room door. The women jumped as the door hit the wall with a bang. He swept his gaze across the room before settling

dangerously on Elise, who sat on the large couch against the left wall. No one moved as he strode toward her. "Good Lord, what in the world is wrong?" she blurted when he halted in front of her. With a jerk of his head, Marcus cleared the room. The door closed with a soft click and he demanded, "Where have you been?" She blinked. "I-I have

just come from Lauren's—" "Not just come. You left there over an hour ago." "What have I done now?" she retorted in the same dark tone he'd used. "It never occurred to you to inform someone—anyone —where you were going?" Marcus grabbed her shoulders. "Don't do this again." He hadn't realized until seeing her, just how far his fear had run. He hugged

her. She wriggled within his grasp. "Marcus." He leaned back and looked into her face. "The next time you leave the castle, tell someone." Her brow furrowed, then her lips pursed. She wrested herself from his arms and tumbled back onto the couch. "Go away," she snapped, and reached to smooth her skirts, which had bunched beneath

her. Marcus sat beside her. "Listen to me. There is mischief afoot, and I won't live in fear for your safety, even within the walls of my own home. Do you understand?" Her eyes narrowed. "What do you want from me? I am a veritable prisoner as it is. Now, like some child, I must ask permission before stepping outside my room?"

"Bloody hell, do you think the Campbells came here out of boredom?" "What do you mean?" "They wanted you." She snorted. "That's ridiculous." He raised a brow. "Is it?" "What are you saying?" He thought, Who are you? Do the Campbells want you simply to hurt me? But said, "They wish to hurt me. Remember, they tried once

before." "True," she agreed. "But why put themselves in danger in order to kidnap me again?" "I beg you to trust me," he said. "Allow me some peace. Your confinement is for a short time, I swear." Elise studied him. "Your father concurs with this theory?" "He does." "All right." "There is something else

that would ease my mind." She sighed. "What is that?" "I'm planning another trip to London. I wish to take you." Surprise flickered across her face, then her brows rose. "This, after nearly chaining me to the castle walls?" "Beware, my sweet. You may yet find yourself in chains." "Sounds very nice,

indeed," she muttered. Despite the feminine nonchalance, Marcus detected caution. Did she suspect what he had in store for her? "I said your incarceration would last only a short time. I will feel more secure if you're with me." "London?" she repeated. Ah, there it was, a note of interest. "Aye." She looked thoughtful, then said, "Perhaps the

Campbells would forget about me in the meantime." "Perhaps," he said, though a niggling doubt said otherwise. "I will go," she said. Marcus braced himself. "Good. Then I'll send for Father Whyte."

Chapter Thirteen "What?" Elise asked softly—too softly. "I'll send for Father Whyte," Marcus repeated. "Why?" "Last I heard, a priest was needed for a wedding." Her eyes widened. "Married?" "I said we would marry."

"I never agreed." She looked away. "You swore not to become my mistress under any circumstances." Elise looked sharply at him. "Yes, but—" "Unless we marry, that is exactly what has happened." She jumped to her feet, backing away several paces. "Not so." Marcus raised a brow. Her eyes darkened. "You

know perfectly well what I meant when I said that." "Aye, just as I have said." "No," she retorted. "I would not be your mistress when you were to marry." He lounged back against the cushions. "Interesting interpretation." "It is not an interpretation!" "Surely, you can understand my confusion."

"You are trying to trick me," she snapped. "Nay, love. I only point out the facts. When you thought I was to marry, you left. You now know the truth yet are still here. Do you plan on running away again?" Elise jerked her chin up with such a defiant gesture he had to stifle a laugh, despite knowing fear was the driving factor in her reaction. She blew out a loud, frustrated

breath. He stretched out a hand. "Come." Elise responded with a quick shake of her head. Marcus repressed a smile. He remembered the last time he'd offered her his hand. Though reluctant, she had accepted it then. Would she do the same now? "Come," he repeated. She again shook her head, but he noted the tiny

puckering of her brows. She doubted. "You fear me?" he asked. Her brow puckered tighter. "You think you are clever, don't you?" "Not so clever," he replied. "Come." "I have no intention of being tricked." "Aye," he replied. "I-I have to go." She turned. Marcus dropped his hand

to his side. "Where will you go?" She halted. Relief flooded through him. She wanted him. He stood and crossed to her. "Come." He grasped her hand and drew her to the couch. He sat, then gave a gentle but firm yank to her hand, and she tumbled onto his lap. "I cannot—" she began, but he cut in.

"Let us be honest." "I have been—" "You say," he continued, "you will be my mistress now that you know I never planned to marry Margaret." "I never—" "But wouldn't it be more honest to admit you love me?" Her eyes widened. "You can trust me." Marcus discerned a quickening of her breath.

He'd hit the mark. "For you know," he added, "I love you." Elise gasped. He felt the muscles in her body tense in readiness to push from his lap and tightened his hold. She thrashed, though without real violence, and he gripped her chin, turning her face toward his. "Admit you love me." He kissed her. She tried pulling away,

but he held fast, his mouth gentle until he felt a slight tug when she grasped his shirt. He released her mouth and buried his face in her hair. "Can you deny what you feel for me?" "You don't know—can't possibly know—" "I know all I need." She grasped his shoulder and pushed him back until their gazes met. "Today doesn't matter. Tomorrow

your fancy may change." Marcus stared at her. "I am no young buck. I know what I want." She gave a mirthless laugh. "Age has little to do with a man's desire." He started to speak, to explain that her younger age might not allow for the understanding of his more experienced wisdom, but he stopped, remembering the empty marriage she'd

endured. "Hmm," he began slowly. "One day your feelings for me shall fade?" "You are cruel," she cried. "You know that is not my meaning." Marcus's chest tightened. She hadn't denied loving him. He gently squeezed her hand. "I am not Riley." Elise twisted in his arms in an earnest attempt at escape. "You overstep your

bounds, milord." He barely repressed a sudden laugh when she thumped his arm with a small fist. She shoved at his chest and Marcus hugged her so close their lips almost met. "Surely, I have proven I am not faithless," he demanded. "Faithless? Good Lord, you're lucky I don't sacrifice you for my own selfish needs."

"Needs? Aye, lass, you need me. Nay," he added when she opened her mouth to interject. "Don't think I am ignorant of your needs." He slid a hand into her hair. "They are not unlike my own." Marcus kissed her. She breathed deep and he felt his body throb with a need that he now realized had only begun to surface. What would he have done that first day he

saw her in the meadow had he known just how badly he would one day need her? Send his men away and take her there—leave her no choice, nowhere to go but to him? Turning and fleeing straight back to Ashlund would have been the wisest course of action. But he would not have—could not have—even then. He had loved—or thought he loved— other women. He had been

hurt in the past, but Elise held the power to destroy him. He slid his mouth down her chin and along her neck to the swell of her breast. Her head fell back onto his arm without resistance. "You would marry a stranger?" she murmured. Marcus froze. "Take a lowly servant girl to wife." He jerked his head up. "I wouldn't relegate anyone to

that status, least of all, you." Her eyes unexpectedly softened. "I know, but that doesn't change the differences in our classes." "I care nothing for socalled classes. I care about living life." Her expression turned appraising. "Even you did not flout that responsibility. Didn't you marry out of a sense of duty?" "Aye. Which is precisely

why I will not do so again." Marcus crushed her lips to his. She didn't protest this time, and he slid her from his lap and onto the couch. Grasping her hand, he slipped it beneath his kilt and forced her fingers around his erection. Elise started. "Nay," he breathed in her ear. "Do not run from me. God, you haunt me at every turn." Releasing her fingers,

he yanked her dress up and reached between her legs. "Your body responds to me without reservation. Let your heart follow. I promise, I will love you." He slipped a finger inside her slick heat. Her grip on his shaft tightened convulsively. Marcus drew in a sharp breath, gritting his teeth to keep from spending himself. He removed his hand and slid on top of her, pressing his lips

against her ear. "Guide me into you, sweet," he whispered. "Let me show you how much I want you. Let me show you what love is." She did as he urged, and he caressed her with his movements, his body meeting hers, arching away, then gently thrusting again. "Is marrying me so terrible?" he asked against her neck.

She breathed deep. "No, but after the fact you"—she gasped when he thrust with a quick motion—"you will regret being chained to me." Marcus laughed. "It will be the sweetest of tortures." He drove deep again. She cried out as her muscles clenched around him. "It's not as if you need to marry me." She blurted in a strained voice. "I have not

withheld myself from you." Marcus halted. Bracing a hand on either side of her, he looked down at her. "I love you. I want you—need you." He held her gaze as he moved slowly, nearly filling her, then thrust quickly and pulled back. "I haven't left you," she insisted. "You withhold a part of yourself. If not, you would be dragging me to the altar."

Elise reddened. "You don't trust me." He kissed her ear. She shook her head. "I cannot believe we are having this discussion in the middle of… that is, I can't believe we are-are doing this in the middle of a disagreement." Marcus chuckled. "'Tis a new experience for me, as well. But, if we must disagree, this is a most pleasant way to do so." He

slid his hands beneath her thighs, coaxing her legs around his waist. "Aye." He buried his face in her hair at the nape of her neck and drove into her. "I will protect you." He cupped a breast— she was breathing hard now, she wanted him—needed him. He thrust quicker. Her breathless response told him she neared her pleasure. "You will be my wife, my marchi

—" "Your servant girl made mistress of the manor," she said. Marcus jerked, his thrust going hard and deep. Elise gasped. He remained inside her, full to the hilt. "Why did you allow me to touch you?" he demanded. "Don't say it is because I am lord and you are servant. We both know better. I have the power to care for you, protect you."

At last, uncertainty shown in her expression. "As my wife, your security is assured. No Campbells, or anyone else, can harm you." "Nothing is that certain," Elise replied. "I haven't failed you yet." Her mouth parted in surprise. He kissed her mouth and moved in her again. Kissed her forehead, cheek, then ear.

"Admit you want me." He quickened his thrusts. Her muscles tightened around him in readiness for her release. "Admit it," he pressed. "You want me now and every day and night hereafter." Elise hugged him tight. "Yes," she cried as her climax rolled over her. "You are mine," Marcus rasped. "You will not regret the choice."

* * * * Elise found herself being pulled down the hall of Brahan Seer. Marcus intended to take her directly to his father to announce their betrothal. Her head whirled as much from his lovemaking as his proposal. He picked up speed, nearly dragging her down the hallway. She needed more time. "Marcus, wouldn't it be wise to give this more thought

before telling anyone?" "Nay." "Slow down. I can barely keep up with you." She tugged on the hand he grasped. "I can carry you, if you like," he responded, still striding in long paces. "Good Lord, no. Marcus." Elise yanked hard on his hand. He came to an abrupt halt and she tumbled into his

arms. "Aye, sweet," he drawled. "You wanted something." "Slow down. I'm not a sack of potatoes to be dragged along behind you." His gaze dropped to her breasts. "True, and I could easily forget myself even here in the common walkway." Surely, he wouldn't have asked her to marry him if he'd seen the notice in the paper?

Could she live with herself for deceiving him? "You needn't marry me," she said, then silently added, This is your chance, Marcus MacGregor. Save yourself. "I can't refuse you," she said, "even here." His eyes jerked up to meet hers, the amorous light gone. "I believe we were on our way to see my father." Taking her hand once again, he continued at an even more

relentless pace. Five minutes later, they entered the stables where Cameron stood with the young foal born that summer. "Father," Marcus called. Cameron looked over his shoulder at Marcus, then her. "We have an announcement," Marcus said as they drew up beside Cameron. Cameron's expression turned bemused, but Elise

knew better. "Elise and I are to be married." Marcus's hold on her hand tightened. "And soon." Her heart jumped into a gallop. "No one said anything —" "Hush," he commanded, and looked at his father. "Have you anything to say?" Cameron shrugged. "You are old enough to make your own decisions."

Marcus grinned, and she muttered, "Bloody idiotic men." Both men regarded her. She looked back at them. How could she explain that the woman he wished to marry was wanted for murdering her husband? 'You see, my husband poisoned my daughter with tiny doses of the deadly nightshade. The symptoms were subtle, which explains why the doctors

couldn't pinpoint the disease. I never caught Robert in the act, but he knew I knew and tried to kill me. I shot him in self-defense. Ignore the wanted notice in the London Sunday Times. It will eventually go away.' Elise regarded Marcus. "As your wife, I am no longer prisoner?" "You are not prisoner now," he replied. "You are in the castle for your safety."

"Safety," she murmured, then added, "If I wish to go to the village, you will allow it?" He nodded. "If it pleases you. I have work I can take care of while we are there." She narrowed her eyes. "I am no prisoner then?" "Nay," he answered innocently, and she knew she would get no more. He would ensure she was watched every second they

were at the village. If she played the future wife, he would soon relax his hold. Pain stabbed at her heart. She had to be gone before his priest arrived. * * * * Elise paced her bedchamber. Marcus's son would arrive any hour. Only two days had passed since she'd agreed to marry Marcus. Was he hurrying to Brahan Seer to meet the woman who

would marry his father, or to expose her as murderess? How in God's name was she to escape not two, but three MacGregor men? The fire blazing in the hearth cracked and she jumped. She pressed a hand over her racing heart. Something must be done. She recalled the various decanters of liquor sitting on the sideboard in Marcus's library and hurried to the library.

She opened the door and met Marcus's gaze as he looked up from the work on his desk. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, love?" he asked. She closed the door and headed for the sideboard. "I need a drink." Elise ignored the quizzical lift of his brow as she stopped before the sideboard and surveyed the decanters. She spied the small

square decanter filled with cognac. She removed the lid from the decanter, poured a healthy portion into a glass, then emptied it in two unladylike gulps. She heaved a sigh, then poured another, and finished it just as quickly. She glanced at Marcus and saw he regarded her. "Oh," she said, "how thoughtless. Would you like one?" He shook his head.

"Well, I do." The glass reached her lips when Marcus's hand covered hers. "Slow down, lass. You're liable to regret this in the morning." "Unlikely." She brushed his hand aside, then strolled to the hearth while sipping the cognac. "Is something wrong?" Marcus inquired. "Wrong?" She whirled. A delicious warmth radiated

through her body. "A few months ago, I was shipwrecked, left penniless and alone, then, naïve little lamb that I am"—she narrowed her eyes at the mirth that leapt to his eyes —"I was pursued relentlessly by you." "Perhaps what you need is a little comforting," he suggested. Elise rolled her eyes. "What I need is another

cognac." "Nay." She gave her head one single slow shake. "Do not think you can stop me from doing as I please. Now or after we're married." Marcus caught her arm as she approached the sideboard. "Have you not had enough?" She disengaged herself from his grasp. "I'm capable of handling my liquor. Be so

kind as to move aside." She placed a hand on his chest and shoved. He stepped back as she passed. "You're in a fine mood tonight. I have never seen you this way before." Elise paused in filling her glass and looked at him. "Regretting your proposal?" His mouth twitched. Damn him, she mentally cursed. "I think I will still wed

you," he replied. "I'm looking forward to ravishing your sweet body every chance I get." "I believe I pointed out you need not marry me to do that." She lifted the glass to her lips. "Perhaps," Marcus said. "But it will be my obligation, and I will always know where to find you when my sense of duty calls me into service." Elise halted mid-sip and

narrowed her eyes. "What is that supposed to mean?" He shrugged. "A wife is always in her husband's bed, aye?" His gaze made a possessive sweep over her body. She lowered the glass from her lips. "Are you saying you're marrying me to ensure my… my availability?" His wince and quick "Nay" confirmed the

assessment. "I am marrying you because I love you and want you at my side." A tremor passed through her at the declaration of love given so naturally, but she gave a feminine snort and retorted, "A masculine play on words." "Nay," he denied even more vehemently. Elise regarding him more closely. "You're jealous." "Jealous?" His

expression snapped to a stormy darkness. "Of whom?" She waved her glass, dodging the liquid that sloshed over the rim and onto the carpet. "The funny part is"—the funny part is, she should have created a fictional lover long ago —"you were afraid I would want someone else." He looked startled and she couldn't help a laugh. Elise placed her glass on the

sideboard and came to stand in front of him. A fuzzy sensation in her belly made her feel reckless. Wrapping one arm around his neck, she caressed his jaw with her free hand. She ran her gaze in a purposeful, slow motion from his mouth to his eyes. "Perhaps I should have considered another application or two for my hand." His arm shot around her.

She squealed with the hard yank of her body against his. "I am marrying you because I cannot live without you," he growled. But you will, she thought, and pulled away so he wouldn't see the pain that rose too easily to the surface. Elise started for the sideboard and her drink. She reached the tumbler and once again downed the glass. "Elise," he growled.

"Enough." Despite the sudden fogginess of her vision, she reached for the decanter again. This time, strong fingers pried her hand from the stopper. "You seem to forget," Marcus said, "my warning about disobeying me." Elise frowned, the fogginess creeping into her brain. "Ahh, you mean the threat to distract me with your

body." She laughed. "I think that threat is a little old, don't you?" Without warning, he swung her into his arms and, an instant later, she found herself on the couch, pinned tightly beneath him. "I always keep my promises, love, even if it means finding a new twist to an old game." "I'm not in the mood for your games tonight, milord.

Let me go." "Nay." "Marcus." She groaned with the effort of attempting to shove him off her. He shifted and, grasping her hands, wedged them behind her back. His weight lay fully on her and she wriggled, the increasing cloud across her mind impairing the ability to think. Even as she realized he'd lowered his head and his hair

was tickling her chin, the sudden flicker of his tongue dangerously close to her nipple sent a jolt through her. She gave a tiny squeal and he responded with a noise deep in his throat. Gripping her wrists with one hand, he freed his other hand to reached down and yank up her skirt. "Marcus," she breathed, unexpectedly clear headed, "we're in the library. You cannot!"

But he continued, his tongue—his tongue, she forgot in favor of the finger that slid across her pleasure point. Marcus wound a foot around her ankle and tugged her close until she felt the thick bulge pressed to her thigh. His grip on her hands loosened as a slow thrust slid along her thigh. "I think ye will find your father in here," came Cameron's voice just outside

the library. Elise stiffened. Marcus yanked her skirt down as the door opened. She squeezed her eyes shut just before Marcus's gaze settled on his father. "You chose a fine time to visit the library," Marcus said evenly. "Aye," Cameron replied. "So it would seem. You look well this evening, lass," he added.

She buried her head in Marcus's shoulder, not quite stifling an oath. "I think you had better do something about your lady's speech," Cameron said. "She's beginning to sound like a sailor." "Was there something you wanted?" Marcus asked. "Kiernan," he exclaimed. His muscles tightened and Elise realized he was rising. She grasped his

shoulders. He relaxed and said, "I'll be out directly. Give me a moment." The door closed with a soft click, then he said, "You can open your eyes now, love. They have gone." Elise opened her eyes while shoving at him. "Get up for God's sake." He obliged. "Only a moment ago, you didn't want me to rise." She sat up. "Your son—

he saw me." "Elise—" She shot to her feet. "Good Lord, you shouldn't have—" "Now, love, 'tis not all that bad. You were fully clothed after all"—she groaned and plopped back down onto the couch—"and, truly," he went on, "this has been a household of men for many years. We aren't shocked by a little love-play."

Elise shook her head harder this time. Marcus gave her a gentle look. "You can't avoid him our entire marriage." Her stomach did a flip. "I'll take full blame for the situation." She paused. "That is the truth." "Aye," he agreed. She kept her gaze fixed on him, but she was imagining his son's face as he

stared down at them, Marcus on top of her while she arched toward him. If she could only leave the castle tonight. But even an hour's absence would be noticed. Not nearly long enough. She remembered how they had tracked her clear to Glasgow and the damned pawnbroker. "Leave Kiernan to me." Marcus's voice jerked her back to the present. She eyed him doubtfully.

He smiled. "Don't concern yourself over it, love. 'Tis nothing." Elise rose. "I'm going upstairs to change." "But you look beautiful." "I can imagine just how I look," she grumbled. His gaze traveled the length of her, his expression taking on a masculine pride, which started a quiver in her stomach—and reminded her that his son had caught them

when that same look was on Marcus's face.

Chapter Fourteen When Elise finally stepped from the stairwell, Marcus had to remember to breathe. Pleasure rippled through him at seeing she had worn her hair loose. Her creamy skin, luminous against the soft brown of the modest gown borrowed for this occasion, radiated a

sensuality, which revived the memory of their earlier lovemaking. Low bodice met high waist, emphasizing the curve of her breasts. The dress hung loosely around her slim body, transforming her into an ethereal creature drifting toward him. She stopped beside him and smiled at his son. Marcus watched Kiernan's acute scrutiny of her as introductions were made. She

extended a hand as graciously as any duchess. "Madam." Kiernan took her hand and brought it to his lips. Her face lit with enchantment and Marcus breathed a sigh of relief that her misgivings seemed to have evaporated. "Why, sir," she said, "I believe you are a heartbreaker." Kiernan blinked in

surprise. "You didn't tell me he was such a rogue, Marcus. I wager the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Marcus smiled. "Kiernan is very much his own man." Her expression softened. "Perhaps, but that raven's hair and those eyes…" Memory of similar words spoken to him by her upon their first meeting stole over Marcus.

"They must be your mother's eyes." She smiled at Kiernan. Marcus snapped back to the present. Cameron joined them, his raised brow testament that he had overheard the comment. Marcus looked from his son to Elise. It hadn't occurred to him she might speak of Jenna. He had never spoken to her of his wife, and she had no idea of Kiernan's

sensitivity concerning his mother. Kiernan angled his head. "You are correct, madam. I did, indeed, inherit those traits from my mother." "I see," Elise nodded. "But there's more." A corner of her mouth twitched upwards. "She imparted something of herself to you. A piece of her soul, perhaps." Kiernan looked genuinely shaken and Elise's smile

turned gentle. "It is heartening that you carry her with you." He looked hopelessly at his father but was doomed to find no solace there, for Marcus was as surprised as he. "Well, now, Kiernan," Cameron's deep voice broke in, "what do you think of your father's future bride?" He gave Kiernan a crack on the back and winked at Elise.

Marcus noted the blush that crept up her cheek and wondered at a woman who could be so bold one moment, then so reticent the next. * * * * The following day, Father Whyte arrived. Winnie announced the priest's arrival. Had it been Marcus, Elise would have taken the sgian dubh from the wall in the great hall and put it through his heart. That would be a

more merciful end than the one he would suffer if his foolishness got them married. Father Whyte asked if all were well with the wedding arrangements. "A week is a short time to prepare a wedding feast." "A week?" Elise replied, then remembered Marcus saying the wedding would take place soon. He hadn't said how soon. What if you did go

through with the marriage, a quiet voice asked? Then Price would go free, and Amelia and Steven wouldn't have recompense. But how many more would suffer as a result of Price? She had lost the two most important people in her life. Now she would lose Marcus. All because of her stepfather. But it wasn't so simple. If Marcus—or worse, someone else—discovered the truth, he

would pay dearly. In the end, Elise had seen to Father Whyte's comfort in the small abbey located on the southeast edge of Brahan Seer. Guilt piled higher at the realization that he was enthusiastic about the marriage. Why couldn't he have been one of those pinched-nose priests who believe rank shouldn't mix? That night when Elise

appeared in the great hall and started toward the kitchen, Marcus intercepted her and seated her beside him at the table. "Winnie is expecting me." She tried to rise. Marcus laid a firm hand on her shoulder. "Nay. She is not." Elise glanced at the kitchen door. "'Tis the way of things," he said. "You will have duties

enough after we wed." After we wed. Her stomach did a flip. Time was running out and she had found no answer as to how she would safely and successfully slip away unnoticed. There remained only one answer; she had to tell Marcus she wouldn't marry him. When all was said and done, he was a good man. Once she demanded to be allowed to return home, he

wouldn't keep her prisoner. Kiernan seated himself beside her. She was surrounded. Elise listened as he talked of school, friends, and the upcoming season in London. Everything, she thought, except the one thing that must be in the forefront of his mind. How would she respond? What would she say to this keen young man if he questioned her about her past? Kiernan's gaze turned

intense. Her heart rate accelerated. Had she missed something in the conversation? "I do believe," he said, "the ton will be set on its ear by my father's new marchioness." "Marchioness?" Elise repeated. Kiernan nodded. Marchioness… Marchioness—the wife of a marquess. Nobility, Marcus

was nobility? Elise's mind raced. What rank was a marquess? Baron, viscount, earl, marquis—marquess— she abruptly felt as though a thick fog had enveloped her brain. If Marcus was a marquess, then Cameron— she nearly choked. Marcus was a high nobleman, and she was an accused murderess—a wanted criminal with a bounty on her head. "Have I said something?"

Kiernan demanded in a low whisper. Elise's attention jerked back to the young man. "I meant no offense," he went on. "Your forthright manner will be a breath of fresh air for London's tainted society." "Of course," she responded in a whisper. His brow furrowed in concern. Elise shook her head.

"Forgive me. The excitement of the wedding—and London…" she let her voice trail off. Kiernan hesitated, then smiled in polite acceptance. Supper ended. Elise waited until Marcus had joined his father and son near the hearth before slipping from the hall. "Where are ye off to?" Winnie inquired as she

hurried through the kitchen. "I am in need of fresh air." Winnie gave a grunt of understanding as Elise passed out into the night. She hurried across the compound and down the lane to the abbey. Father Whyte hadn't appeared for the evening meal and she prayed he wasn't already abed. Elise entered the chapel to find him kneeling before

the candlelit altar. She stopped, intending to make a quiet retreat, but he twisted and looked at her over his shoulder. The smile on his face died when their gazes met. "What's wrong, child?" He rose and started down the aisle toward her. Elise hurried forward, meeting him halfway. "Father," she said without preamble, "if I ask a question,

you are obligated to tell the truth, aren't you?" "Aye." "What is Marcus's rank?" "Rank?" "Title—rank," she answered impatiently. "He is the Marquess of Ashlund." Her heart beat faster. "What is a marquess?" "In this case, he is the son of a duke." "A—" Her head reeled.

"So Cameron really is a…" "A duke," Father Whyte confirmed. Elise collapsed onto a pew. "Madam!" He caught her hand and fell to his knees before her. "Are you ill?" "My God," she whispered. "My God." She looked at him. "This is… no mistake?" He looked confused. "There's no possibility

Marcus will not follow his father's footsteps?" "Marcus is the only son. He will one day be the Duke of Ashlund." "My God," she repeated. Then, abruptly looking at the priest, she said, "If I cry off, Marcus couldn't force the wedding?" Would he—could he—actually force her to stay? "Nay," the priest answered slowly. "He could

not force you." "Father, can you tell me why he hid his identity from me?" "Hid his identity? I dinna' see, exactly—" He frowned. "You knew nothing of his rank?" She shook her head. "But everyone knows. Perhaps he assumed you knew." "He cannot stop me from changing my mind about the

marriage—can he? I left once before and he brought me back." Father Whyte looked surprised. "He is a powerful man. I hadn't considered such possibilities, but I suppose he could do almost anything." The priest hesitated. "My child…" Elise's heart pounded. "Good Lord, what?" "In society's eyes, you and Marcus are married. The

wedding vows are a mere formality. You have been through a proper courtship." He didn't acknowledge her unladylike snort. "Everyone assumes—" He stopped. She frowned and he added, "That you already live as husband and wife." A jolt of embarrassment warmed her cheeks. She'd been a virgin when Robert married her. The possibility of intimacy outside the

marriage bed hadn't occurred to her. But then, she hadn't considered the possibility of intimacy at all after Robert. "Of course," Father Whyte added, "if they are wrong…" Elise laughed again, this time with bitterness. "You won't find redemption for me there, Father." "You needn't worry. You are to be wed. As I said, 'tis a formality."

"A formality which carries the weight of the law." "True." "And I am free to go?" she insisted. "Your reputation would be ruined." "Bah! I don't care a fig for my reputation." "It would be a terrible scandal for Marcus, as well." "Would it?" she said with asperity, but guilt surfaced amongst the anger.

A mental picture flashed of the next big headlines in the London Sunday Times, "The Duke Who Married a Murderess." The fact it was a lie wouldn't matter. "The announcements have already reached the papers," Father Whyte said. "Announcements?" Elise echoed, then said, "But of course." "Come," Father Whyte's expression softened, "there

has been some mistake. Marcus is a good man. Surely, you will listen to his explanation." "What explanation?" asked Marcus from the rear of the church. Elise surged to her feet. "Lord Ashlund. Good of you to join us." * * * * So she had discovered the truth. Marcus had no one to blame but himself for not

telling her. He strode to them and halted beside Elise. He gave an acknowledging nod to Father Whyte, then said to her, "Aye, love. Lord Ashlund, Marquess of Ashlund." "You lied to me." He recognized the fear behind the curt statement and gently answered, "Nay." Her lips thinned. "You deny it?" "If I led you to believe I

was of noble class but wasn't, you would have reason to be angry. The fact I am of the noble caste is of no consequence. Have you ever heard anyone here address me by my title?" Her mouth tightened further. "You kept it from me." "You are saying I instructed all of Brahan Seer to deceive you? How could I possibly accomplish such a

thing? The fact that you learned about this before we signed the marriage certificate proves my point." "The marriage certificate?" Elise repeated, then, as though to herself, said, "Of course, we would sign a marriage certificate." "It doesn't matter," he insisted. "Especially here." She canted her head. "And when we leave Brahan Seer? Isn't that the reason we

are doing this because you insisted we cannot leave Brahan Seer without being married?" "Aye," he replied. "We cannot travel the country and live as we do here. Expectations are different outside Brahan Seer." "Yes, they are," she retorted. "To the extent you are to be a duke!" "You aren't being honest," he continued, forcing

back frustration. "Admit it. Had you known in the beginning, you wouldn't have agreed to marry me because of my station." "So you did lie." "I did not." "Father," she said, keeping her gaze on Marcus, "isn't the sin of omission the same as a direct lie?" The priest took a deep breath. "It is." "Are you saying you

won't marry me because I will one day be a duke?" Marcus demanded. "I am saying, I will not marry a man I cannot trust." "Bloody hell," he cursed. "After all the years the MacGregors have fought for their good fortune, to have it turned against us—" Her eyes flashed. "Make no mistake, Lord Ashlund, it isn't the MacGregors's good fortune I hold against you."

"It is," he cut in sharply. "If I were Michael's son instead of Cameron's, you would view my suit as proper." "That is not the point—" "It is exactly the point. With anyone else I would not have had to say, You do realize I am a marquess? Yet, you say that is exactly what I should have done." "You knew not telling me was a manipulation."

"How am I to answer?" he snapped. "Had I made a point of telling you, you would have balked. Yet, not telling you is a grievous sin." Elise eyed him critically. "When did you plan to tell me? Once we arrived in civilization and someone bowed before you?" "Nay, as I just said, when you signed the wedding certificate you would have known."

"And when would that have been, the moment before we took the wedding vows?" Marcus looked at Father Whyte. "When, Father?" "Tomorrow." Marcus looked back at her. "A far cry from the wedding day." "But far too long considering the length of our courtship." "You're being foolish." He grasped her arm.

She shook him off. "How did you expect me to react?" He wished mightily Father Whyte weren't present. "I had hoped some feeling had developed that would negate these foolish concerns." "I need to be alone with my foolish concerns." She brushed past him. Marcus glanced at Father Whyte, who gave him a troubled look, then Marcus

shifted his gaze onto Elise as she disappeared out the chapel doors. * * * * Elise closed her bedchamber door, then walked to the couch and sat down. Placing a hand on her belly, she pressed it in an attempt to quiet the twisting, which had begun as a flutter and was now a wrenching unlike anything she had experienced since the last

night on the Amelia. Elise Merriwether would be the name of the woman to marry the Marquess of Ashlund. It was foolish for her to have given her greataunt's surname, but when she'd come out of her delirium in Josh and Shannon's home, she'd given the first name that came to mind. Would Price connect that Elise Merriwether to her? Her mind raced. Would he

see the notice? The announcement would go into the London Sunday Times, probably The Scotsman in Edinburgh, as well. But would the news reach America? She thought of the Boston papers and recalled the news when King George III died and his son took his place. Occasionally, large business ventures were reported, but she couldn't recall any marriage

announcements for the nobility. Elise released a shaky breath. It was unlikely the announcement would make the American papers. She leaned back against the cushions and closed her eyes. Looking back, it now seemed ridiculous she hadn't realized there was more to the MacGregor men than mere wealth. She had missed all of the warning signs. How had

she been so blind? "Oh, Marcus," she whispered. "What have you done?" A duke can protect even a murderess, her mind contended. Her insides gave a vicious twist. He could, she agreed. But could his reputation survive the scandal? And could she live with herself for hurting him? First thing tomorrow morning, she would go to

Cameron and demand to leave. * * * * At the sound of voices in the great hall, Elise paused on the stairs. Who would be roused at this early hour? It wasn't yet dawn. "I know what ye told me," a young male voice said. Tavis. "Aye," came another, deeper voice. Marcus.

"I'm willing to take my punishment, laird," Tavis said. Elise didn't breathe. "I told you not to leave Brahan Seer again," Marcus said. "You are a man—the only man in your household. You're old enough to understand that responsibility." Elise crept down the remaining four stairs and peeked around the corner.

They stood on the far side of the table nearest the postern door, Marcus's hand on Tavis's shoulder, Tavis's gaze downcast. The worry on Marcus's face stirred something deep within her. The day the Campbells attacked, he had been ruthless. But this was a gentleness as kind as his ruthlessness had been cruel. "The thirst for revenge will eat a man alive," he said.

"I swore to deal with your father's murderers, and did. Leave it be." He sighed, the action revealing a great weariness. "If those dogs came for you, even with a warrant from King George, I wouldn't give you up." A tiny smile played at his mouth. "Lad, we aren't as different from the Campbells as we believe. They were as unwilling to hand over their kinsmen as I would be."

Elise couldn't check a surge of hope. He would not give up one of his own—even in the name of justice? Marcus crossed his arms over his chest. "I have no intention of facing your mother with the news that you have followed your father to the grave. Therefore, you go to London." Tavis gasped. "Nay," Marcus said. "You will have no more

opportunities to go wandering off by yourself." He raised a brow. "You know your sister follows." "I made sure she did not," the boy protested. Marcus laughed. "Never underestimate a female, no matter her age." "Laird," Tavis begged, "I promise—" "Nay," Marcus said shortly. "Not London then, but

Edinburgh." Another laugh from Marcus, this one tinged with fondness. "London it will be, lad. Edinburgh is too close for comfort." "Laird," Tavis said, desperation in his voice. The mirth in Marcus's eyes faded. "Erin will accompany you to England." Elise felt her breath quicken. A decree she would have made had she the power.

Realization washed over her in a tidal wave. If she confessed the truth, Marcus would sail across the ocean and kill Price with his bare hands. If she disappeared, he would leave no stone unturned until he found her. If she told him she would not marry a duke, he would follow her to the ends of the earth in order to change her mind. God help him, he loved

her. And God help her, she wouldn't sacrifice him… not even for Amelia and Steven. * * * * Marcus entered the great hall the following afternoon to discover the room filled with people and humming with unexpected excitement. He scanned the familiar entourage until his gaze settled on his cousin Sophie and, to his surprise, Elise,

who looked as though she hadn't a care in the world. The two women stood, profiles to him, and neither had noticed his entrance. He hung back near the door, watching. He hadn't spoken with Elise since she left him standing in the abbey the night before. He had gone to her room early this morning and found her bed empty. She had slept there, however, a

fact he had verified in the dead of night. His search that morning didn't turn her up in the kitchen or the ladies' drawing room. Even his library, a favorite haunt, had been empty. The kitchen maids informed him she and Winnie had gone to visit Chloe. Marcus studied Elise. What had transpired after she'd sequestered herself in her room? What other

ridiculous considerations surfaced during those waking hours? She hadn't sought him out to inform him there would be no wedding. Neither had she confirmed there would be a wedding. No note, no message, nothing. He shifted his attention to his cousin. Sophie, Lady Whycham, was one of the few Ashlund relatives he liked. Though petite, her flaming red hair and

voluptuous body had made her all the rage before she wed Justin Ellington, the Earl of Whycham. She caught sight of him, ceased speaking, and raised a meticulously plucked brow. Elise turned, and he started toward them. "Sophie," he said as he neared. "What brings you here, lass?" "Don't play the innocent with me, Marcus MacGregor.

You know full well I would not let my favorite cousin wed without me." The keen curiosity in her gaze vanished and her eyes narrowed in a fashion that Marcus knew well. "I am wondering, Cousin," she said, "why it is I read of your engagement in the newspapers instead of hearing it from you." Marcus looked at Elise, whose impassive expression didn't quite hide the sense that

she, too, wondered the same thing. He slid an arm around Elise. She stiffened. The small hope inside him sagged, but he kept his gaze on her. "When last I visited Ashlund, I had no notion I would marry." "No?" Sophie said, bringing both their attentions onto her. "Still, you could have sent a personal missive." He again felt Elise's

thoughts echo the question, and he looked down at her. "Forgive me, Sophie," he said, and smiled gently at Elise. "Since Elise agreed to be my wife, I have thought of little else." "Not so, Cousin," Sophie replied. "You didn't forget the formal announcements." Marcus shot his cousin a sharp look. Sophie groaned. "Elise, are you sure you will be able

to put up with him for the rest of your life?" Marcus started. He cursed silently at Sophie, then his future wife when her expression remained unreadable save a hint of curiosity. "Everyone is speculating about the woman who has captured Marcus's heart," Sophie went on. "Good Lord," Elise blurted

Sophie laughed. "Didn't you know, my dear? Marcus is a confirmed bachelor." Marcus stilled as Elise looked directly at him for the first time. "Really? I wouldn't have believed it." "Why is that?" Sophie asked, the eagerness in her voice so transparent that Marcus wanted to thrash her. "Because your cousin pursued me with such a vengeance that I would have

thought he was desperate for a wife." Sophie burst into howls of laughter, and his desire to laugh with her forced him to cough loudly several times. "Does this," he began, but halted abruptly to clear his throat before saying, "Does this mean—" "This means, sir," Elise cut in, "you should attend to your guests." He opened his mouth to

reply, then closed it again. * * * * Elise opened the door to the library and stepped aside. "Forgive me, Lady Whycham. I hadn't expected company, so the ladies' drawing room isn't ready to receive guests." "Call me Sophie." She brushed past Elise. "We shall soon be related. No need to stand on formality. Now," Sophie seated herself on the

divan and waited until Elise had taken a seat beside her, "tell me what my cousin has done to annoy you." Elise startled but managed a hasty, "I'm not sure what you mean." Sophie's eyes twinkled. "I know my cousin." She laughed, a small snort escaping in the process. "Still, he did surprise me with the decision to wed again." She leaned close. "Marcus had

formed no lasting attachments since Jenna's death. Though he is no womanizer—he is a remarkably discriminating man—he isn't one to refrain from female company." "I didn't have the impression he denied himself the company of women," Elise said dryly. Sophie's eyes widened with mirth and she clapped a hand over her mouth. Elise blinked, then gave into the

infectious laughter. Sophie lowered her hand. "All right, Cousin, what has he done?" Elise hesitated. How did she explain that Marcus hiding the fact he was a rich and powerful man could prove to be his and her undoing? When Elise had finished relating the tale of how she had come to Scotland and of Marcus's deception, Sophie

took a deep breath. "I suppose learning the man you're to marry will one day be a duke could be a shock. But the fact he cares for you—" Sophie halted, and Elise knew her shock showed. "You doubt his feelings?" Sophie asked. She didn't, but she hadn't grown used to the idea, and the fact Sophie had so easily seen it made her want to cry. So, she countered with, "How

can any woman know what a man thinks?" "Come now, you must comprehend that Marcus isn't a man to make a commitment lightly." "What I comprehend is that Marcus is a man accustomed to having his way." "That is true of any man with half a wit." Elise couldn't help laughing. "I suppose you're

right." Sophie's expression softened. "You aren't betraying your husband by loving again." Elise nearly choked. "Nno, of course not." "There is no one for you to return home to?" She recalled the blood darkening Steven's coat. "No." "Your husband's family, what of them?"

"There is no one." Sophie sighed. "A shame." "Yes," Elise replied, and couldn't prevent a picture of the two who waited for her at the bottom of the sea. Her chest tightened and she rose. "Would you care for a drink?" She crossed to the sideboard. "Marcus keeps an excellent Napoleon brandy." "Brandy?" Elise paused, her hand on

the decanter lid, and twisted to look at Sophie. "Don't tell me you're going to lecture me. Are all MacGregors so puritanical?" Sophie's eyes lit with amusement. "I've heard the MacGregors called many things—bloodthirsty, uncouth, barbaric, ignorant— but never have they been compared to anything so noble. Puritanical, indeed." Elise couldn't resist.

"There is port, if brandy is too strong for you." "Brandy it is," she said without hesitation. Elise poured two glasses of the brandy and returned to the divan. She handed a snifter to Sophie, then sat down. "Did I mention that I tried escaping to Australia?" "I do not recall the story," Sophie replied with such gravity that Elise

couldn't help wondering if someone had indeed repeated the tale in the short time the countess had been there. "Marcus's men retrieved me," Elise said. "Retrieved you?" "It seems strange now that I left," she said more to herself than Sophie. "What happened when my cousin's men came for you?" Sophie asked. "Cameron sent them.

Marcus wasn't aware I had left. He told me if he had come, it would have gone far worse for me." "I can well believe that. Why did you leave?" Elise grimaced. "The reason was sound." "Do you mean to extract a little revenge now?" Elise looked at Sophie. "Things aren't always as simple as they seem." Sophie nodded once.

"And often not as complicated as we think. What stops you from leaving again?" "He would only come for me again." "But of course," Sophie agreed. "There is nowhere you could hide from him. I do see your point." Elise looked sharply at her. Merriment danced in Sophie's eyes, and Elise realized she referred to

Marcus and not Price, as her imagination had jumped to think. She was hallucinating —either that or drunk. "Just how rich is my husband-to-be?" The countess's eyes widened, and Elise cried, "Good Lord, that didn't come right at all." She groaned and collapsed against the divan back. "I imagine you wonder what sort of reception you'll receive once you leave

Brahan Seer?" Elise's heart jumped, but the reaction was stalled by the honesty that shone in the countess' eyes. "I swear, Sophie, as foolish as it sounds, I had no idea he was a duke. Here at Brahan Seer… I knew him as Cameron's son and leader of the MacGregor clan. I knew they weren't destitute, but a duke!" She laid a hand on Sophie's hand. "I am no

duchess." "And I was no countess," Sophie replied. "What?" "I was only Lady Ashlund. Of course, my family has money." Sophie's eyes danced. "All Ashlunds have money. But, then, so does Justin." "Ashlund," Elise repeated. "They are MacGregors?" "Oh, no. Ryan

MacGregor married Helena Ashlund about one hundred and fifty years ago. Helena was an only child, therefore, the dukedom fell to Ryan when Helena's father Coll Ashlund died." Sophie shook her head and a shadow passed over her face. "That was a terrible time. The MacGregor name had been outlawed." "The clearances?" Elise asked. "Oh, no. Those atrocities

are much more recent," she said. "There was a great deal of political strife"—Sophie laughed—"when hasn't there been political strife in Scotland? In any case, the crown seized MacGregor land, and the MacGregors fought back. It is said in our family that, if not for Helena marrying Ryan, his brand of the MacGregors, Marcus's line, wouldn't be here today." "Ashlund money," Elise

murmured. "You have it," Sophie said. Indeed, Elise thought. Now what am I to do with it?

Chapter Fifteen Much later that evening, Marcus pushed past the cluster of men outside the library doorway watching Elise and Sophie, each with a glass in hand as they sat on the floor in front of the fire giggling like school girls. He stopped and looked from the women to the decanter on the

floor beside them. On the sideboard, other decanters sat in disarray. Some had been left uncovered—one actually lay empty on its side. Marcus turned his attention back to the women. He could scarce believe his eyes. They were drunk. The women looked up as he strode toward them. "I suppose 'tis my fault for not looking for you here first." He stopped before them.

Elise and Sophie looked at one another and shrugged. "I told you to inform someone of your whereabouts." "Told me?" Elise's brows rose sluggishly. "I seem to remember you as-as-" Her gaze cut to Sophie. "A difficult word—asking me," she got out in a quick breath, then looked at him again. "But, then, I'm not surprised you remember it differently."

Laughter emanated from the men. "And in case you hadn't noticed," she went on between hiccups, "I haven't left the confines of the castle." Despite the slight slur in her words, they were said with emphasis. Another ripple of low laughter came from the men and Marcus shot them a quelling look. Cameron coughed and Kiernan raised a

brow while the others' mouths twitched with amusement. Marcus turned his attention to Sophie. "I see you are introducing my future wife to the niceties of polite society." Sophie looked at Elise, who said, "I do believe he is blaming you." Leaning into Sophie, Elise added in a loud whisper, "Just like a man, wouldn't you say?" The gales of laughter that

swept the room increased when Elise gripped the seat of the chair with one hand, while clutching her glass with the other, and began scrambling to her feet. Marcus reached to assist her. She batted his hand away and rose onto unsteady feet. She swayed, grabbed the back of the chair, and leveled her gaze on him. "Now see here, Marcus MacGregor, we'll have none

of your lectures tonight." She pushed at his chest with the hand that held the glass. "Lady Whycham and I are enjoying ourselves and we don't need you or anyone else telling us what we should do. Isn't that right, Sophie?" "Right," agreed Sophie. "We don't need you or anyone else." "If you will excuse us." Elise reached down and grasped Sophie's hand. She

pulled, nearly falling onto Sophie before finally helping her to her feet. Sophie smoothed her skirts as Elise faced Marcus. "Lady Whycham and I are going to see to the preparations for the banquet." Shoving her glass into his hand, she headed for the door, Sophie on her heels. A picture of the two women falling down the stairs and breaking their lovely necks

flashed in his mind, and Marcus sat the glass on his desk and started after them. The men parted for the ladies, stepping back an extra pace when he charged past. He grabbed the women as they reached the stairs, pushing Sophie toward his son and scooping Elise into his arms. "Put me down!" she sputtered, but he ignored her, hurrying down the stairs and into the great hall. When he

reached the table, he dropped her into a chair. "He's peeved," Elise commented to Sophie, who had been set in the chair beside hers. "Serves him right," she replied. Marcus stifled an oath and ordered a kettle of tea. When the strong brew began to clear their senses, he watched with satisfaction as they rubbed their temples.

"Brute," Elise muttered, casting a dark glance in his direction. She rose and headed for the stairs, adding loud enough for all to hear, "I wager Sophie agrees with me." "Damnation, Elise," Sophie paused in rising, "must you shout?" She, too, started for the steps. Elise paused at the stairs and glanced over her shoulder. Marcus met her

gaze, but she only shook her head and turned to go up the stairs. "You're to be married in two days," Sophie said, taking the first step behind her. "Perhaps you should give serious thought to your decision, Elise." Marcus jumped from his seat at the table. By God, he would strangle her. He strode across the room. Halting at the bottom of the stairs, he

called up to them, "Sophie, you would do well to keep your thoughts to yourself." His voice echoed up the narrow staircase and both women halted, covering their ears. "Of all the nerve," Sophie complained as they started up again. "Marcus, I never knew you to be so perverse. Mayhap you should reconsider, Elise. I wonder if any of us know him at all."

Marcus took the stairs two at a time and, in a flash, reached Sophie's side. "You will retire to your chambers now, Cousin," he growled. Grasping her elbow, he hurried her up the stairs ahead of him until they reached Elise. Marcus grabbed her elbow with his other hand and forced them up the remaining steps ahead of him. He escorted them down the corridor until they reached

Elise's chambers. He shoved Sophie in the direction of her room, opened Elise's door, and thrust her inside. "Don't leave this room the remainder of the evening. I will have dinner sent up." Elise mumbled something unintelligible as he clicked the door shut behind him. When Marcus reentered the hall a moment later, the low laugher of the men cut

short. Those sitting at the table seemed absorbed in the odd task of examining the tabletop. Marcus looked closer as he neared them and discerned the collective struggle to keep from bursting into laughter. "Out with it!" he boomed. "I couldn't live with the guilt of someone bursting a blood vessel." No one made a peep, and he threw his hands into the air

and headed for the sanctuary of his library. When he was halfway up the stairs, the hall filled with laughter. Marcus paused, torn between cursing the men and joining them, then shook his head and hurried up the stairs. * * * * At the light tap on his library door, Marcus ceased speaking to Harris. The door opened and Sophie peered inside.

"Oh," she said, "forgive me. I didn't know you were busy." She started to back away and Harris said, "We can finish later, Marcus. I have enough here to begin work." He lifted his notebook to indicate his notes. "No," Sophie began, but Marcus waved her in. Harris rose, bowed to Sophie, then left them alone. She seated herself in the chair Harris had

occupied, and said, "You seem to have accomplished a great deal this morning." She motioned to the open ledger on his desk. "I rise early," he replied. "It is a beautiful morning." Marcus gave her an appraising look. "I would think after yesterday evening that this morning would not be so pleasant for you." Sophie smiled. "I have a

strong constitution, as you well know." She settled back against the cushion and regarded him. "Do not say you are truly angry with me." "Shocked. As Justin would be, I wager." "My God!" she exclaimed. "Mayhap Elise was right." "Right about what?" he asked sharply. "She commented on the puritanical characteristic of

the MacGregors." Marcus tossed aside the quill he'd been holding and lounged in his chair. "I assume this is in reference to me?" "You were the original topic of conversation. But never mind that. I like Elise." "Aye?" "Yes. She told me the harrowing story of how she came to be here. I am curious, though, what it is she is

omitting." "What do you mean?" Sophie's expression softened. "It is plain you care for her." "Sophie—" "Don't become annoyed with me, Marcus. We have known one another too long for such foolishness. I am pleased you have found a woman to care for, and approve of the match." Marcus raised a brow.

She gave him a dry look. "You comprehend what I mean. Now, tell me, what is she hiding?" He took a deep breath. "I have yet to find out." Sophie smoothed her dress. "She isn't given to talking about herself, even half in her cups. Which do you think is most likely: that she has committed a crime or has run away from her husband? Either one would

allow for her gentle upbringing." He prayed to God she hadn't run away from a husband. What would he do if that were the case? "Those are not the only possibilities," Marcus said. "It may be her husband was in debt and she has no means to repay the creditors." "Quite right," Sophie said. "I hadn't thought of that."

Thus far, his investigations had turned up no record of a ship sinking in Solway Firth, nor had any ship docked in the firth. There had, however, been a terrible storm the day before Shannon and Josh found Elise. The ship may have sunk as Elise said. The report of ships docking in Edinburgh and London gave no clues as to what ship she might have sailed on. The

report on ships leaving Boston harbor had yet to reach him. Marcus focused on his cousin. "I will have no meddling in this affair, Sophie." She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Of course not." "I am serious," he added. "Marcus, I don't interfere in the affairs of others." He gave her a reproachful look.

She screwed one side of her mouth into a wry smile. "Not really, I don't, and you cannot deny that I have never interfered in your life." "True." "But that doesn't mean I can't see what is happening. What measures have you taken to discover the truth?" "That is nothing you need concern yourself with." Sophie sighed. "I feared you would say that. Marcus. I

like the girl. Still, I would ask that you inform me if any… problems arise." "I will keep your request in mind," he said, and wished her a good day. * * * * Her wedding day brought with it all the promise of a hailstorm in June. Wind blew in clouds so dark, it looked as though God's wrath would rain down upon them. Elise sent up a prayer of thanks for

Sophie's experienced hands. She held her breath while Sophie deftly fastened the buttons that went from the neckline of the yellow silk gown to the small of her back. "There." Sophie gave a final tug to smooth out the dress. Elise turned as Sophie reached for the matching lace veil. "Look at this beautiful work." "Yes," Elise agreed.

"Winnie is a master needlewoman." Sophie smiled and positioned the veil's band atop Elise's hair. The lace fell to her waistline. A lace overskirt continued the illusion of fog amid petals to the floor. Sophie stepped back. Elise watched her soonto-be-cousin, touched by the genuine pleasure on her face. "Lovely." Sophie's expression sharpened. "Well,

Cousin, you've done it now." Elise glanced at the clock on her mantel. "I still have half an hour." "A full thirty minutes in which to explain to Marcus why you changed your mind." Elise jerked her gaze onto the countess. "Come now, you know your anxiety is only due to the gravity of the vows you will take." A gleam appeared in Sophie's eyes. "Unless you

fear you cannot keep your vows." "You MacGregors," Elise began, then amended, "Ashlunds," at the look on Sophie's face. "Born troublemakers." "A long line of troublemakers." Her mouth assumed an impish grin. "Perhaps you are nervous about the wedding night? I have not once seen Marcus making his way to your

room." "Good Lord! Is nothing sacred?" "No," she said, then picked up the bouquet that lay on the bed. Elise looked again at the clock, then back at Sophie. "I still have twenty-five minutes. Sophie," she began, but Sophie cut her off. "I will await you in the drawing room." Elise smiled her thanks.

As Sophie closed the door behind her, Elise seated herself on the couch. Twentyfive minutes from now, the key that bound her soul to Amelia and Steven would lay at the bottom of the sea with them. She had considered using her position once she married to quietly bring about Price's fall, but had recalled Marcus's words "The thirst for revenge will eat a man alive." The same was true of

a woman. She was trading Steven and Amelia's rest for Marcus's safety. May they forgive her.

Chapter Sixteen At sight of Marcus dressed in a new kilt, a crisp, white lawn shirt meticulously tucked into his waistband and buttoned to the neck, and a bonnet cocked to one side, Elise faltered the last few steps from where he stood at the altar. In minutes, this man would be her husband. Her

gaze met his and she saw there an intensity that demanded she leap into his arms from across the final precipice that separated them. Her knees weakened. Marcus held out his hand. She flushed and dropped her gaze. He grasped her hand in a firm grip, turning with her to face Father Whyte. The priest spoke the Latin vows slowly, then patiently waited until she repeated them as he had

coached. Marcus repeated his vows and, before Elise realized it, he slipped a large emerald onto her finger. The ring was a size too large, but her heart skipped a beat at the weight of the jewel and the cool of the metal encircling her finger. Father Whyte gave the final blessing and a shout went up when Marcus took her in his arms. Her attention jerked from the emerald to him as he finalized the ritual

with their first kiss as husband and wife. Hand on her back, Marcus guided her around to face the guests who stood cheering. He urged her down the aisle and out the chapel doors. The crowd waiting outside shouted in exultation, and those following joined in more shouts. Waves, squeals, and cries of good wishes followed them to the castle. Marcus opened the postern

door and Elise stepped inside. With a sweep of her gaze, Elise took in the gold and purple swags adorning the walls, the velvet surfaces softening the light cast by sconces burning from holders erected while she slept last night. On the far side of the room, hung on each end of the wall, were two intricately woven tapestries depicting Highland men in battle. The table was laden with food,

and serving girls dodged guests who had arrived too late to find space near the chapel. Another cheer went up and several women hurried forward, grasped Elise's arms, and whisked her across the room to a place near the hearth. She was instantly surrounded. Sophie stood among their ranks and she gave Elise a knowing look. Elise turned to see Marcus reach the opposite

side of the room, a glass of whiskey already in hand, his friends clapping him on the back. The men spoke loudly and, despite the din, Elise caught bits and pieces of their bawdy suggestions for the wedding night. Her female companions giggled, all but Sophie, whose mouth twitched, and Elise realized they, too, had heard the advice given her husband.

Her cheeks warmed and she wished very much for the quiet of her bedchambers. Her bedchambers. Goose pimples prickled her arms. Their bedchambers. She would occupy the lady's chambers, but she wouldn't sleep there. The look in Marcus's eyes when the priest had pronounced them man and wife had dispelled any doubts about their wedding night. Sophie was right; she'd

done it now. Serving girls emerged from the kitchen, trays piled high with lamb, beef, chicken, delicately stuffed quail and wild pheasant. Salmon, perch, flounder and whitefish followed, all caught from the fresh waters of Loch Katrine and Lock Lomond. On the way to the castle, Elise had glimpsed the wagons loaded with meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables

that would be carted to the village so that all who had crossed MacGregor land for the wedding could partake in the festivities. She had overheard Marcus give instructions for fine liquors to be included in the bounty. Elise glanced his way. He stood among the warriors and peasants as though among equals. Who, but the wealthy—those who need not worry for

tomorrow's bread—stood so casually? And what of those who toil for the bread to feed those they love? something deep inside her whispered. Her heart pricked. Idiot that she was, not until two days ago had she found the presence of mind to go to Marcus's library and research the Highland clan system. Knowledge is power, her father had said. She had forgotten that precept. Had

she followed her head instead of her heart, the moment her traitorous heart had stirred at the sight of Marcus MacGregor she would have made it her business to know his business. A chill stole through her and settled in her gut. What good had that done her with Robert? His family was counted among the elite of Boston, yet he had been a murderer. Elise focused abruptly on the man and

woman who stepped before her. The woman offered a bundle wrapped in simple cloth. "For ye, m'lady," she said in a thick accent. Elise reflexively reached for the parcel. "Thank you." She untied the twine that bound the bundle. The knot loosed easily and the cloth fell away to reveal a finely stitched linen blanket. Elise slipped a finger beneath the

material's folds and, grasping it between her fingers, ran them along the edge. "It's beautiful," she breathed, and opened the blanket to its full four feet. She placed the cloth covering on the hearth's mantel, then pressed the linen to her cheek. None finer had she found, even in the expensive boutiques of Boston. "How soft." She looked questioningly at the woman.

The woman blushed. "We grow the flax. I harvest the reeds, then make the linen." Elise stared. She knew the arduous task of creating linen. As a young child, she had watched her great grandmother, a woman of seventy-two years, draw bundles of flax (straws pulled, not cut, her great grandmother stressed, for cutting made the stems

useless) across boards filled with spikes set far enough apart to allow the flax stalks through but not the seed heads. That was but the beginning of the long process that led to the creation of the yarn used in the weaving. Elise looked at the woman. "I've never seen finer work." The woman blushed deeper and glanced from her husband back to Elise. "'Tis a

blanket for the bairn." "Bairn?" The woman smiled. "The one sure to come next spring." Emotion shot through Elise. The memory of Amelia as a newborn, wrapped in swaddling cloth, flashed before her only to be replaced by Amelia's lifeless body wrapped in a white burial shroud. Another child?

She jerked her gaze onto Marcus. As though aware of her alarm, he looked in her direction. His attention focused on the blanket she still pressed against her cheek. His eyes softened and she knew he realized the blanket's significance. Elise dropped the blanket from her cheek and looked back at the man and woman. "Thank you," she said in a hoarse voice.

The man looked at his wife, his pride in Elise's reaction taken as proof they had pleased the lord's bride. He gave a small bow and ushered his wife away. Elise turned and came face to face with Sophie. "Shall I take that?" Sophie placed a hand on the blanket. "Oh, Sophie," she cried in a small voice, "what have I done?"

"One never quite forgets the pain of losing a child," Sophie said. The bagpipes struck up, followed immediately by the fiddle, then the remaining instruments blended into one for Elise. She watched as Sophie lifted the blanket and examined the intricate pattern. "Society would pay a great price for such work," she commented. "And to

think you found it here in the Highlands." Sophie looked up from the blanket. "Interesting what one finds in the most unlikely places." Hours later, the revelry showed no signs of abating, so Elise retired. Sophie saw to her undressing, then the donning of the nightgown she had given Elise as a wedding gift. The gown made of palegreen silk brushed her ankles.

She hadn't worn a night dress so fine since leaving Boston. Sophie slipped the sleeves of the matching robe over her arms. Elise examined the small satin rosettes encircling each sleeve hem. "Lovely," she murmured. Sophie stepped back and surveyed her. "You're lovely, and Marcus is sure to agree." Elise grimaced, although inwardly she trembled. The heated look in his eyes when

she'd turned before going up the stairs made her stomach do somersaults every time she remembered their passion. Why in heaven this should be so, she couldn't fathom. Tonight would not be the first time they'd made love. How much closer to love might tonight bring her? Sophie assisted her into the large, four-poster bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She kissed Elise's

forehead then left. When the door clicked shut, Elise turned onto her side, facing the low-burning fire. Sophie had said the men would keep Marcus occupied well into the night. It seemed every time she had glanced in his direction, his glass was being filled. Father and son were following his example. She expected the lot of them to pass out on the stone floor of the great hall.

A glint from the corner dresser drew her attention. A gold chain, another gift from Marcus, sat beside a garnetcrowned heart brooch. A gift from Cameron. The brooch had belonged to Marcus's mother. Moisture had glistened in Cameron's eyes when he pinned it on her dress. Tears stung her eyes. What would Marcus's mother have thought of her son marrying a murderess? Elise

slipped an arm beneath her pillow and hugged it close as she drifted off to dreams of ships tossed about by high winds, a child lost in the darkness, and a man who called from a place she couldn't distinguish. * * * * "Quiet, lads." Marcus slapped Declan's shoulder. He rode atop the shoulders of Declan and Kiernan. "Ye are sure to wake the dead."

Declan pretended to misstep, jostling him. Marcus grasped Declan's shoulder. "Don't make me fetch my sword and deal with you," Marcus laughed. The procession of men stopped before the new lady's bedchambers. Declan kicked open the door. It hit the wall with a resounding bang and Elise bolted upright with a small cry. She blinked against the soft light of the candle

illuminating her nightstand. At the sight of disheveled brown locks cascading down her shoulders and over the creamy rise of her breasts, Marcus's groin tightened. She looked from him to Declan. When her gaze came to Kiernan, her eyes widened and she snatched the sheet up to her chin. Probably best, Marcus realized. Kiernan was no threat, but a band of drunken

Highlanders barred the only exit. He bit back a laugh when her attention shifted to the top of his head where, earlier, had sat the nowmissing bonnet. Her gaze traveled downward, her eyes narrowing when they reached the missing shirt buttons—a shirt open to his navel and only half tucked into a kilt, which looked as though it might come unpleated with a brisk sneeze.

Her gaze lifted to his face. "Is there something you want, milord?" Guffaws followed, along with several straightforward answers to her query. Marcus noted her chagrin in the form of pink cheeks. He patted Kiernan's and Declan's shoulders. They lowered him to the floor while Declan added his compliments upon Marcus's wisdom if he heeded their advice. The

request they be allowed to remain followed as Elise's attention settled on Declan. Marcus glanced at Declan, who winked at her, and Marcus knew Declan was extracting a bit of revenge for the cuff with the frying pan. "We have brought your new lord to you, lass," Declan said, his deep voice resonating above the general commotion. "He's a wee bit worn, but you need not

worry. He'll have no trouble wielding his sword for you tonight." The men fairly shook with raucous laughter. Elise gave a ladylike sniff, but Declan gave no evidence of noticing the cool look she sent his way. She gave Marcus an appraising glance, then addressed Declan. "He looks worse for the wear. I suggest you put him in his own

chambers. I have no need of a husband who is useless." The men succumbed to more uproarious laughter. All, that is, except Marcus. He stepped forward and, heedless of her sudden cry and valiant attempt to keep the sheet wrapped around herself, pulled her to him. "I assure you, sweet, I am quite fit for tonight's activities." Whoops of approval

went up as he kissed her quick and hard. With a jerk of his head, he cleared the room, never breaking eye contact with his wife. Finally, when everyone had gone and the last of the suggestions and general advice had faded from the room, Marcus released her. He stepped back and appraised her. She kneeled half naked on the bed, hair tousled as he remembered it on those

occasions she had allowed him into her bed. He wondered if she thought he wouldn't come to her, then noticed the sleeves of the filmy pale robe and night shift she wore. A gift from Sophie, no doubt. Did the wearing of the gift indicate his new wife anticipated his coming? She had uttered not a word about the discovery of his title, but she had married him. Was

that enough? Had she forgiven him? Marcus hadn't pressed her, fearing he would further tip the scales in his disfavor. She had gone about the business of the wedding as any bride might—any bride who considered marriage a business, that is. She had surprised him, unexpectedly joining him and his men yesterday when they went to the village. She had, when

he'd made the mistake of addressing her familiarly, looked as though she would bolt for the castle. The look on her face then, he realized, wasn't so dissimilar from the look she wore now. "Have you come to fear me so?" he asked. When she made no reply, he added, "You married me, Elise, knowing who I am." She tilted her head as though to read his thoughts.

His body pulsed. A wary look entered her eyes and he could have sworn she had read his mind. "I have spent many nights in your bed," he said, adding in a husky voice, "Though, not nearly enough. Tonight and every night hereafter, you will be in my bed." He waited for no response—needed no response—other than the

reaction he would get when her body responded to his— and scooped her into his arms. She gave a surprised cry. So, she was no mind reader, after all. Marcus strode through the connecting closet into his room. He stopped before the massive bed. Her gaze shifted to the bed, then moved across her new surroundings. Her attention lingered on the fire

burning in the hearth, then flicked upward to the sword which hung over the mantel. Elise abruptly looked at him, seeming to have forgotten she lay in his arms. He kissed her. She wriggled as if to slip through the miniscule space between his arms and chest. Marcus flicked his tongue into her mouth, mimicking the motion he would soon replicate inside her body. She stilled,

and he wondered if she was envisioning the same action. At last, he broke the kiss. He scrutinized her face until her gaze fell to his chest. Slowly, he lowered her feet to the carpeted floor. He pushed the robe and night rail from her shoulders. His gaze followed the slither of their descent until they struck the floor. Marcus tipped her head up until she faced him and

whispered, "Touch me." Elise didn't move, didn't blink, and he held his breath. She shifted, only minutely at first, then lifted a hand to finger the topmost button still intact on his shirt. She reached with the other hand and unbuttoned the button, then the next, then the last. Her gaze remained focused on his chest. Marcus stifled heavy breaths when she slipped her hands inside

his shirt and slid them up and over his shoulders. He dropped his arms to his sides, allowing the shirt to fall to the floor. Her hands glided down his chest. Ripples of pleasure radiated through him. He hardened more with each inch she descended. She stopped with her fingers clasped around his belt. She slipped the leather from its loop. The clasp clinked in the silence of

the room as she unfastened it. The plaid loosened and dropped into a pile at his feet. She didn't move, and he realized her gaze was fixed on the jutting, hard length of him. He didn't move—wasn't about to move. She could stare at him all night and, knowing her eyes were on him, he could maintain his arousal until she tired of the sight. Her gaze did move, though, back to his chest

where she placed her palms. "You're so hard," she said, as though marveling at something she hadn't the slightest notion could have been. Marcus choked back a groan. He backed her against the bed and she fell onto the mattress. He scooted her farther up onto the bed, then rose over her, holding his body inches above her. He gently kissed her forehead,

then the tip of her nose, her eyelids, cheeks, mouth. Here he lingered, rocking his hips against her in light motions as he drew the kiss out. Elise ran her hands along his back, hesitating at the curve of his buttocks. "Aye, love," he whispered, placing small kisses at the corner of her mouth, then along her neck. "Touch me as you like." He rocked again and, this

time, her hands continued around and over the curve of his buttocks. Marcus groaned as he took a nipple between his lips. He gently parted her legs with a knee, then eased into her. He moved slowly, drawing out her pleasure. He suckled one breast, then the other until, at last, her fingers tightened on the tensed muscles of his buttocks. He quickened his movements. An instant later, she cried out

softly and lifted her hips to meet his movements. Another instant, and he emptied into her. He waited until the throb of his body ceased, then hugged her close and slid to her side. * * * * Elise relaxed against the carriage's cushion. She closed her eyes, allowing the motion of the carriage to lull her. The journey from Brahan Seer to the lowlands had been easier

than expected. The stop at the Green Lady Inn earlier that morning had divided a tedious eight-hour ride into two, more comfortable, fourhour portions. Now, less than two hours from Ashlund, they would first stop at Sophie's estate. She opened her eyes and looked out the window at Marcus, who rode alongside the carriage. He sat, as always, easy in the saddle.

There had been little time to think of him today. Sophie had kept her distracted with plans for Ashlund and the visits they would make to the modiste, as well as a number of other merchants, who were sure to provide what Sophie said she needed to fulfill her role as the new Marchioness of Ashlund. A tremor ran through her. She shifted her attention to him. Without Sophie's

monologue filling her head with visions of jewels and bolts of rich fabrics, and without Mary's enthusiastic contributions as to which dresses and jewelry Elise should wear to the parties, she couldn't deny she was, completely and fully, Elise MacGregor, Marchioness of Ashlund. Her body warmed. There had been no denying that fact last night when Marcus had

bedded her for the first time as his wife. She slid her gaze down his body to the muscled calf visible between kilt and boot. The memory of his thighs between her legs last night, then again this morning, dried her throat. She swallowed. Her throat moistened, but her heart beat faster as if in rhythm with his thrusts when he brought her to climax. How many nights such as that lay ahead of her?

Was it possible they could live in peace? Could she could make him happy? "He is a fine male specimen," Sophie said. Elise jerked her gaze to Sophie, who regarded her from her seat in the far corner. Mary gave a titter of laughter, and Elise scowled. "You must make some people very nervous, Sophie." "I do, indeed," the countess replied without

hesitation. "I am pleased Marcus agreed to stop at Whycham House. You need a rest and I so want you to meet Justin." "I'm glad as well," Elise said. The carriage rounded a bend in the road and a rider became visible in the distance. Marcus kicked his horse and galloped to meet the rider. An instant later, Kiernan's horse passed the

carriage at a gallop as he, too, sped to intercept the rider. "What's happened?" Sophie demanded. "A rider," Elise replied, without taking her eyes off Marcus. Sophie moved from her side of the coach to sit beside her. Sophie leaned close and they watched as the man stopped and Marcus pulled his stallion to a halt beside him. Kiernan joined them a

moment later. They spoke, then Marcus and the man whirled their horses in the direction the man had come and Kiernan spurred his horse back toward the carriage. The carriage halted as Kiernan arrived. "What is it?" Elise demanded. "A fire at Ashlund." Both women gasped. "It's the stables," Kiernan called. "The horses are safe,

but there's been a casualty. My father and Jeremy are riding ahead. I will see you to Whycham House, then follow." "We are nearly to Whycham House," Sophie said. "You needn't accompany us the rest of the way." Kiernan shook his head. "Father instructed me to see you safely there." He shouted at the driver to move on.

The coach lurched into motion. Kiernan urged his horse to precede the coach and, twenty minutes later, they arrived at Whycham House. Kiernan waited only until the coach passed through the gates, then whirled his horse before Elise could ask any questions. She emerged from the carriage, her gaze following the boy as he disappeared from sight down the road.

"Don't worry." Sophie rested a hand on Elise's arm. "They know how to deal with such matters." "But we don't know a thing about what has happened." "Come along, Mary," Sophie instructed the maid as she hooked her arm through Elise's and started up the walkway of the imposing mansion. "Trust them to deal with the fire." Sophie led

Elise across the threshold and into the foyer. Elise tossed her riding vest onto the bed and crossed to the chair nearest the window as Mary closed the bedchamber door behind them when Sophie left. "Now, there must be some water here somewhere," Mary said, as she glanced around the room. "There it is." She hurried across the

room to the dresser. Elise seated herself in the chair and bent to unlace her boots. "Freshen yourself first," she said. "I'll rest a few minutes then see to myself." "I canna' do that," Mary exclaimed. She poured water from the pitcher into the bowl it sat in. "The laird would be displeased." "The laird isn't here to care," Elise replied. She wondered if Marcus had

reached Ashlund yet. The estate lay another hour and a half away by carriage. A fast horse could have gotten him there in half the time. "Aye," the girl replied with a deep sigh. "It must be difficult for you considering the danger." Mary took a step back and surveyed the dresser drawers. She opened the top right drawer. "Oh, fine," she said, and pulled out a washcloth.

"By the time they arrive to Ashlund, the fire may be out," Elise said. "Mayhap," Mary said. She dipped the cloth in the water and wrung it out. "Just pray the main house doesna' catch fire in the process." Elise straightened from her boot. "What do you mean?" "I'm going to Ashlund," Elise announced an hour later

as she entered the drawing room. Sophie looked up from the tea she was pouring. "Marcus said you were to stay here." She set the teapot down. "He did not." Elise stopped in front of her. "Kiernan simply escorted us here so he could hurry to Ashlund." "You know he intended for you to remain here."

"He probably thought I would be more comfortable here and that I might not want to arrive at Ashlund under such circumstances. Had we discussed the matter, I would have explained none of those things mattered." Had Marcus told her the grove that separated the stables from the house had burned once before, nearly taking the house with it, he wouldn't have been able to

keep her away. Winnie's story of how her uncle had burned while asleep in his house came back to Elise with the same horrifying realism it had when Mary described how the grove burned thirty years ago. "Why the concern?" Elise said when the furrows in Sophie's forehead deepened. "Daylight will last another two hours. I can reach Ashlund long before

dark. I will take the driver, along with the men Marcus assigned to accompany us." Sophie still looked doubtful and Elise added, "Along with two of your men, they can help with the fire." "Three of our men," she said. "Keep them as long as Marcus needs them. Perhaps I should send more? Oh dear, I should have thought of that earlier. I wish Justin were here. He would deal with this

far better than I." She looked at Elise, adding in a hopeful voice, "He should be returning any moment." "We have all the time in the world to get to know one another," Elise said. "Now, let's have the carriage readied." * * * * Marcus slowed his stallion as he neared the stables at Whycham House. The boy Samuel emerged

from the stables and Marcus came to a halt beside him. Marcus dismounted and tossed the reins to him. "See to him, Samuel," he said, and started for the house. He hurried along the footpath. Despite exhaustion last night, he had missed Elise. He entered without knocking and went directly to the drawing room where, as expected, Sophie sat on the

couch facing the window overlooking the gardens. Elise, however, wasn't present. Sophie looked up. Her brow furrowed. "What is amiss?" "The only thing amiss," he replied, "is that my wife isn't here. Is she still abed? It is nearly—" Sophie's eyes widened and she gave a soft gasp. Marcus felt an instant of

confusion, then his heart leapt into a furious rhythm. "What is it? Where is she?" Sophie stood, the needlework in her lap falling to the floor. "She left yesterday, a short time after we arrived." "What?" Marcus's head spun. "I instructed her to wait until I came for her." He broke from the cold hand of fear and strode to Sophie. She looked up at him, panic on

her face. He grasped her shoulders. "Why did Justin allow her to leave?" "He wasn't here. Elise was concerned about you." "And you let her go?" Marcus shook her hard enough to loosen several hairpins. Two curls struck her shoulder. "It was still light," Sophie said, her voice so shaky Marcus realized she was close to tears. "I travel

between Whycham House and Ashlund often. Marcus!" Tears streamed down her cheeks. "You know it is true. I have never feared traveling on that road, even at night." Marcus released her, his hands working and reworking into fists. "She took three of our men," Sophie went on. "I told her to keep them as long as needed at Ashlund. It was early. I had no reason to—"

"No reason to think!" he roared, and stepped closer. She didn't retreat. "She is not to travel alone," he shouted. "There have been threats—" "Threats?" Sophie's gaze hardened. "Threats you say? I ask you, then, why we weren't told? Should Justin not have been informed? Should not some provisions have been made? My God, Marcus, why have you kept silent?" He struggled to answer,

but the words—his mind— nothing worked. "What are these threats?" Sophie asked in a voice so reasonable, so firm, Marcus snapped from his indecision. "There's no time for explanations." Sophie opened her mouth to speak, but he said, "First, we find her."

Chapter Seventeen Marcus followed Elise's carriage tracks from Whycham House onto the road leading to Ashlund. Where a heavier-trafficked crossroad joined the Ashlund road, a myriad of tracks, all muddied by the night's rain, obscured hers. Marcus ordered Justin to return to

Whycham House and check all farms and cottages near the road, while he continued onward and did the same. Two hours passed before he heard the pounding of hooves over the sound of his own mount's gallop. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Justin approaching. Sophie rode alongside and Kiernan followed with a dozen more men behind. Marcus slowed his stallion as they neared. He

observed the haggard look on Sophie's face when they came alongside. They had discovered no news. "There are four farms between the point you left us and Whycham House," Justin said. "I did not wish to diverge too far off the road until we could better ascertain where she might have gotten lost." Marcus's head jerked to

the side and he glared at Justin. "Lost?" "You have found nothing?" Justin went on. Marcus looked forward again. "Nay." "We are but midway between Ashlund and Whycham House," Justin said. "There is much territory yet to cover." Two farmhouses down, they encountered a peasant who remembered Elise's

entourage. "When?" Marcus demanded. "Yesterday," the man replied. "I was returning from MacLellan's down the road. Later afternoon, four-thirty or five, I would say." "All was well with her?" "As far as I could see." "How many were in the party?" Marcus asked. "I didn't see inside the carriage. Let me see, there

was the driver, wheeler," he paused, then added, "there were three or four men riding alongside. Can't say for sure." "Sounds as if the men are accounted for," Justin said. "Come," Marcus directed the man, "you will show us exactly where you saw my wife." They rode a mile south on the road, when the farmer stopped them. "Here." Marcus dismounted and

examined the tracks. "Bloody hell," he cursed. "It looks as though all of Edinburgh has traversed this road." He tried following his line of sight along one set of carriage tracks, only to lose them in the tangled web of another in the moist ground. "Lord Phillip passed this way," the man said. Marcus cut his gaze to the man. "Lord Phillip. When?"

"I passed him about two miles north of his estate," the man replied. "Then you saw Lady Ashlund here?" "Aye." Marcus looked at Justin. "Phillip's estate borders mine." Justin nodded. "Perhaps they passed one another." An hour later, Marcus departed Lord Phillip's estate knowing nothing more than

that the earl had set out to visit a friend to the north before heading south for Edinburgh. Marcus cursed the earl's timing, his absence, and his person. Marcus glanced at the sky as he mounted his horse. The day had turned to dusk. He had ridden since morning and his mount flagged. He rode to Ashlund and exchanged his horse for a fresh one. He reached the

outskirts of Ashlund property and encountered the search party. "Exchange your horses for fresh ones at Ashlund," Marcus instructed. "I'll speak to the tenants of the two farms to the south." "Father," Kiernan said in unison with Justin's, "Marcus." "I left instructions for horses to be readied for you," Marcus said. "You will

overtake me soon enough." * * * * Dusk gave way to night as they extended the search into the countryside to the west. To the east, a high cliff butted the shoreline of an inlet from the bay. Now, they rode fifteen miles south of Ashlund, stopping at every village and home on the road to Edinburgh. The next village lay five miles farther south. Marcus urged his horse

into a harder trot and the company following did the same. Sophie rode between Marcus and Justin with Kiernan behind them. "Marcus," Sophie called above the clatter of hooves. He looked at her. An overcast sky hid the moon, but four of the twelve men who accompanied them carried torches and he easily made out her strained expression.

Sophie shook her head. "Why didn't Elise—" She broke off with a stifled choke. Marcus looked straight ahead. "I alone bear the blame. Don't cause yourself any further grief over the matter." "No further grief?" Her words hit him like barbs and Marcus snapped his attention onto her. Her eyes blazed. "You can be an arrogant bastard,

Cousin. Whether or not I share blame, I will grieve as I please." She yanked her horse's reins and Marcus pulled to the right in order to avoid her horse. She circled to the rear of the company and brought her stallion alongside Justin's. A moment of silence passed before Justin said, "Seven men traveled in the company, all trained men of war. Not easy prey."

"Yet they are gone," Marcus said. "True," Justin agreed, "but there will be news of them somewhere. A company of brigands large enough to take such a large party could not go unnoticed." "Then let us find that news," Marcus said, and spurred his mount into a full gallop. The morning sun had

only begun to spread across the grey sky when Marcus brought his horse to a halt in front of Ashlund. Justin, Kiernan, and the messenger, carrying news of a priest who said he had knowledge of Elise's entourage, followed Marcus as he jumped to the ground and ran for the porch, then took the stairs two at a time. Pushing past the oak door, they strode down the corridor to the drawing room.

Marcus threw open the door to find Sophie sitting on the couch. Beside her sat the priest, Father Fynn. The priest stood and Marcus hurried forward. "Father," he said, "what news do you have?" The priest hesitated. "Tell me," Marcus demanded. "You have news of my wife." "Forgive me, Lord Ashlund," Father Fynn began,

"Yesterday, we found a woman's body washed ashore near Braemer." Marcus's head reeled. He looked at Sophie, who had yet to rise. He turned back to the priest. "You can't be sure. We found no sign of foul play." "Lord Ashlund, I wasn't aware you had married, and this woman was a stranger to us. Therefore, we began a search of our own. We

traveled upstream and—" he broke off. "What? What did you find that could possibly confirm your suspicions?" "A carriage." Marcus stared. "A carriage means nothing." "I know the crest. All living in this area know it." Father Fynn pointed at the two-sworded crest hanging over the hearth. "The carriage bore your crest. It lies on the

shore near Glenurcom." Forty-five minutes later, Marcus stood with Justin and Kiernan at the edge of a wooded cliff overlooking Glenurcom. He looked down at a carriage, the front half of which was submerged in water. The horses' bodies were tangled in the mass of leather and iron, which had once been harness and axle. Marcus watched small waves lap at the bloated mass of

flesh. He stared again at the broken carriage, then closed his eyes. Even from a hundred-foot distance, there was no mistaking the Ashlund crest. He turned away. Justin followed. "You say you found another woman's body in the carriage?" he addressed the priest, who had remained astride his mount. Father Fynn nodded.

"Young. By her dress, I assumed a servant." "Mary," Marcus mumbled. "And you found the bodies of how many men?" Justin asked. "Four." "How many men had you left with her, Marcus?" He laughed bitterly. "Not enough." "How many?" Justin repeated.

Marcus looked up, startled from his stupor by the earl's sharp tone. "Four. The driver, two wheelers and one guard. Kiernan rode with them. They were but twenty minutes from Whycham House—" He ceased speaking when Kiernan's mouth tightened. "'Tis not your fault, Kiernan. You saw them to Whycham House as I instructed." "Three men are missing,"

Justin went on in a businesslike manner. "Where are they?" Marcus looked at him. He heard the words, but the meaning escaped him. "What?" "Three men remain unaccounted for." "You know full well where they are," Marcus said in a savage voice. "They ran from my wrath. And well they should. But they can't

hide from me forever. When I catch them—" "Don't be a fool," Justin cut in, his voice still calm. "There isn't a man in your personal entourage who would run rather than die. As for the three men from my household, I've trusted them with Sophie's life many times." Justin began looking about the rocky terrain of the forest. He strode ten feet, then

came to a halt. He studied the ground for a moment before saying, "The carriage came through here." With a sweep of his hands, he indicated a wide area between the trees. "I see only this bit of carriage tracks here," he squatted and ran a finger over two inches of ground, "and," he scuttled forward, "this here." He ran his fingers over another four inches of ground. Marcus looked at the

ground, but the imagined picture of Elise's terrorstricken face as the carriage careened through the forest toward the cliff's edge blurred his vision. He watched numbly as Justin rose, walked another twenty feet in the direction of the road, then stopped again. He dropped to a squat and examined the ground. "Here is a hoof print." He lightly touched a mossy spot

between embedded stones. "This stony ground challenges my limited skills as tracker." Father Fynn dismounted and joined Justin in studying the ground. He glanced toward the road, then rose, strode several paces, and studied the ground. "Two rode here." The priest pointed to the ground a foot away. Justin rose and walked another ten feet past the

priest. He surveyed the ground, then the cliff. He looked at Marcus. "Why didn't the women jump?" Marcus's stomach lurched. Justin frowned. "The guards would have instructed them to jump long before they reached the cliff. The men wouldn't have willingly gone over with the carriage." Justin turned and walked toward the road until he

disappeared among the trees. A moment later, his faint call sounded from beyond the trees. Marcus didn't move. "Father," Kiernan said. Marcus looked at him and Keirnan gave him an inquiring look. Marcus started toward Justin's voice. He broke from the trees to find Justin examining the road. Father Fynn followed, his horse's reins in hand.

Kiernan trailed with the remaining horses. Justin didn't look up at their approach, only said, "Marcus, you are a far better tracker than I. Have a look." Marcus moved forward as though in a dream and squatted next to Justin. "This road is nearly as rocky as the shore," Justin said. "However, there is no mistaking these tracks." Marcus looked at the

inch long depression crushing the moss which grew between the rocks. "And," Justin went on, "these." He pointed to another small rut to his right. Marcus looked at the track. He frowned and looked up at Justin. "A second carriage" The earl nodded. "Have you any idea if this could be Elise's carriage?" Marcus looked from one

carriage track to the other, then back at Justin. "Nay." "They are two separate tracks, then?" "Aye. They are spaced too far apart to be the same carriage." He surveyed the ground. "This road isn't used a great deal." The road branched off the main road to Edinburgh. He looked at Father Fynn. "This is the road you took from Braemer?" "Aye," the priest

answered. "We found no sign of the carriage leaving the main road," Marcus said. "True," Justin agreed. "But the rain the night before obliterated most tracks." Marcus rose and stepped slowly toward the trees, all the while scanning the ground. When he saw the partial indentation of a hoof print, he looked up and stared at the trees through which

Elise's carriage had raced. "Kiernan," he called without looking back, "bring me my horse." * * * * "Wait here," Marcus told Justin and Kiernan when they followed him down the chapel hallway. They had remained close—too close— on the ride to the church, and Marcus had no stomach for it when he faced what lie ahead. They obeyed, and he

continued to the door that separated him from the body of the woman Father Fynn insisted was his wife. Marcus reached for the door, his hand shaking so badly he gripped the doorknob with force enough to turn his knuckles white. He pushed the door open, stepped through, then shoved it shut behind him. In the time it took to slide his gaze from the floor to her body, the memory of

Elise turning to face him the day he'd happened upon her in the meadow flashed before him. Burned into his mind was the proud expression that revealed the indomitable spirit that would not be tamed. The memory shattered at sight of the body lying on the small bed in the corner of the room. He reeled. Father Fynn warned that her skull had been damaged beyond

recognition, but nothing had prepared Marcus for this. His belly roiled. He fell to his knees, his stomach finally giving up what little he had been coerced into eating the past two days. He wretched until he thought his liver would follow, then slumped forward. A sudden pounding on the door jarred him. "Father!" Kiernan called from the other side of the door.

Amidst the pounding came Justin's calmer, "Marcus." "Stay out!" Marcus shouted. He leaned forward, his palms finding purchase on the floor amidst the vomit. The pounding ceased. Marcus slowed his ragged breathing, but no amount of effort controlled the shaking of his body. He forced his head up, steadying his gaze on Elise's

skirts, torn and mud-caked. He recognized the light yellow damask. His gaze moved of its own volition to her hands, folded across her chest in an attitude of rest. Without thought, his gaze yanked farther up her body and he stared at the unrecognizable face. * * * * Marcus jerked to consciousness as though roused from a slumber of

years. Daylight had faded the sky to a purple haze. He rode between Justin and Kiernan. He searched his memory but found no recollection of how he had come to be there. He looked left, past Kiernan, and studied the forested land. There was something— something he couldn't quite grasp. He looked ahead at the road, damp from the day's shower. The recollection hit him like a bolt of lightning.

He couldn't mistake the place. Marcus yanked on his horse's reins, wheeling the beast past Kiernan. "Father!" Marcus ignored his son and galloped through the trees toward the spot where Elise's carriage had run off the cliff. Hoof beats followed, but he cared nothing for his companions. He broke from the trees into the clearing at the cliff's edge and brought

his horse to a halt ten feet from the cliff. Marcus leapt from its back and strode to the very edge of the cliff. "Father!" Kiernan's shout preceded his burst into the clearing. Marcus whirled. "Her wedding band." "What?" Kiernan said, breathless as he jumped from his horse and hurried to his side. Marcus looked past him

to Justin, who was dismounting. "I didn't see her wedding ring. Did the priest give it to you?" "No," Justin replied. Marcus tightened his jaw as he pushed past Kiernan. "What have they done with her wedding band?" Justin strode to his side. "The highwaymen would have taken everything." Marcus shook his head. "Nay. The ring was a size too

large. She feared losing it and packed it away for the trip." The earl shook his head. "Surely the highwaymen would have searched the baggage." "The emerald is three karats. It will not be easily hid. I can find it and Elise's murderers within the week." For the second time that day, Marcus rode through the streets of Braemer. Elise's

body was already on its way to Brahan Seer. Justin had made the arrangements. Marcus's gut twisted. He would retrieve her wedding band, find the guards who had deserted her, then return to Brahan Seer… and to her. He could offer no recompense for her death, but neither would he find peace for the remainder of his days. He stopped in front of the modest church.

"Wait here," he ordered Kiernan and Justin, then dismounted and went inside. Father Fynn walked down the aisle toward the door. He halted when Marcus entered the sanctuary. They stared at one another for a moment, then the priest said, "You're here about the jewelry?" Marcus felt another vicious twist to his insides. "Aye."

Father Fynn nodded. "Come with me." He turned and started toward the altar. Marcus followed him to the back of the church. He hesitated when the priest paused before the altar to make the sign of the cross. Left led to the room where Elise had lain. Father Fynn turned right, but Marcus's knees weakened nonetheless. They continued down a short corridor and entered a modest

bedchamber. Father Fynn stopped before a desk in the far corner and opened a drawer. He retrieved a folded paper, then faced Marcus. "I wanted no mistakes. When I saw the quality cut of Lady Ashlund's clothes, I assumed she had met with highwaymen. Therefore, the fact she wore no jewelry did no' surprise me. I thought no more of it until Sara MacPhee, one of my

parishioners, arrived early this morning. According to her, her son discovered your wife. I didn't know that when I spoke to you earlier because it was James MacAlphie who alerted me to the presence of Lady's Ashlund's body in the loch." Father Fynn paused. "You must understand, the jewels represent a lifetime of wealth to these people." Marcus made no response and Fynn went on. "The long

and short of the matter is that Sara's son took the jewelry." Marcus clenched his hands into fists. "The boy is gone. You could find him, of course, and would be well within your rights to extract payment. A man of your position could sentence the boy to a lifetime of imprisonment." Marcus envisioned the boy hanging alongside the three men who had been

entrusted with Elise's life. Father Fynn unfolded the paper. "Sara saw the jewelry. She described a thin, gold bracelet and a brooch—" "I am well aware of my wife's jewelry," Marcus snapped. He strode to Father Fynn and snatched the paper from his hands. "Of course." Father Fynn hesitated. "Lord Ashlund, I pressed Sara for information

concerning the brooch. It was the most valuable of the items, so I had hoped—" "Most valuable?" Marcus demanded coldly. "My wife's wedding ring was far more valuable. The emerald is three karats. The gold, twenty-four karat. The ring has been in my family for generations. It is priceless." Father Fynn looked startled. "Emerald? What emerald?"

"She packed the ring in her valise with the chain and brooch." The priest pointed to the paper Marcus held. "I swear, Lord Ashlund, there was no emerald ring. Wait, there is this." He opened a drawer and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. He unfolded the document and handed it to Marcus. He lifted the paper and recognized the pawnbroker's

ticket for Elise's wedding band. Thick gold wedding band his mind repeated the words on the document. Elise had kept the pawn ticket. Why? Marcus riveted his gaze to Father Fynn. "Where is this Sara MacPhee?" Fear crossed the priest's face. "I will not harm her." Father Fynn hesitated, then said, "I cannot stop you."

"No," Marcus said, his voice hard. "No one can." * * * * In the predawn hours the next morning, the door to Marcus's study opened and Justin and Kiernan entered. The time of reckoning had arrived. "Justin," Marcus said, without shifting his attention from the instructions he was preparing for Harris, "go home."

"Father," Kiernan said, forcing Marcus's attention to the chair Justin was settling into and his son standing beside it. Marcus met Kiernan's gaze and he saw the pain on his face, but only broke the connection saying, "You will return to school." "I will stay." "Staying will not stop me." He looked at Justin. "Nor yours."

"I will not leave," Kiernan asserted. Marcus swung his attention onto his son. "You will return to school. Refuse, and I will have you bound and taken back to Brahan Seer, where you will remain until I return." "If you return," Kiernan shot back. "You are old enough to understand—" "Old enough to

understand a fool's errand when I see one." "The boy deserves an explanation," Justin said. Marcus stared at his son, then looked at Justin. This was the first the two of them had demanded an explanation for his actions of the previous evening. He understood that he might appear insane. When he'd left the church in search of Sara MacPhee, he hadn't commanded them to

leave, but neither had he explained the hurried ride to her home, nor the search of the immediate area when her cottage was found empty. No words were spoken on the return trip home and Justin and Kiernan didn't accost him when he closeted himself in his study the length of the night. They knew nothing of what he'd read in the preliminary report entitled "Elisabeth Kingston" that had

sat on his desk until last night. Kingston. At last, he knew her name. Marcus closed his eyes. Why did you not tell me, Elise? Too late, he knew her identity and why she was in the Scottish Highlands. The daughter of a wealthy shipping baron, Elise had lost her father at age fifteen. She was now thirty— older than he'd thought. She married Robert Kingston—

not Riley, as she had called him—seven years ago. Amelia Kingston had been born a year after the marriage. Amelia died aboard the ship that bore her name. Robert, too, had died. Only, he hadn't drowned in the wreckage of the ship but had been brought down by a bullet administered by his wife. Marcus's wife, the Marchioness of Ashlund, was wanted for murder. What

pushed a woman to murder her husband? Marcus's man of affairs had attempted to find the Amelia's captain to answer that question, but ship and captain were on an extended voyage to Australia and wouldn't return for six more months. He'd located only one crewmember who had been aboard the Amelia on that voyage. The crewmember told of a nasty

storm that had raged the night Elise had been lost at sea. Robert appeared on deck during the storm. He had a pistol, but before he could use it, Elise shot him. He returned fire as he fell. Steven was hit, but not mortally wounded. Elise had told him Steven went down with the ship. She must have believed Steven dead by her husband's bullet. A massive wave struck the ship and swept Elise

overboard. Everyone in America thought her dead, which didn't explain the notice advertised by her stepfather, Price Ardsley, that named her murderer. The investigator included in his report the rumor that Price Ardsley was unhappy with the twenty-five percent interest in Landen Shipping, which had fallen to Elise on her twenty-fifth birthday. If not for the twenty-six percent

her brother controlled in Landen Shipping, her interest would be of small consequence to Price Ardsley. The Amelia never docked in London, but did arrive back in Boston three weeks later. Two months ago, another ship owned by Landen Shipping arrived in the southern dock at Rotherhithe, Scotland. Price Ardsley had been aboard the

ship. Marcus picked up the envelope that contained the report on Elise and tossed it to Justin. He caught it and they made eye contact. "You have one hour." Marcus looked at Kiernan. "Then I leave for Glasgow." * * * * Marcus paused on the boardwalk outside the shabby pawnbroker's shop and scanned the dock. Despite the

early hour, hackneys passed in both directions on the street beside him and Justin, and sailors strode along the walkways, while others loaded and unloaded supplies and goods. A woman, likely one of the notoriously dishonest public house landlords the riverside teemed with or one of the brothel madams, hurried across the road. This was the neighborhood Elise had been

in when Daniel found her. Marcus shuddered at what could have happened to her, then remembered what had happened to her less than half an hour from Ashlund. "Are you all right?" Justin asked. Marcus nodded, then entered the shop. A small man stood behind the counter in the rear of the room, his back to them as he examined an item Marcus assumed

belonged to the man who stood on the other side of the counter. The man behind the counter turned. His gaze fell first on Marcus, then flicked to Justin and returned to Marcus. His eyes widened. Marcus glanced at the gold pocket watch the man clutched before the hand disappeared behind his back. Marcus strode toward the man with Justin following. The customer turned. He

didn't step aside as they stopped beside him, only scrutinized Justin, who stood closest. "Do we know one another?" Justin asked with a lift of his brow. The man gave a rough laugh. "Nay, canna' say I've had the pleasure." Justin turned to the man behind the counter. "Are you the proprietor, sir?" The man shifted

uneasily. "I dinna' know as I'd say the proprietor." "What are ye talking about, Jack?" the customer cut in. "You owned this shop your whole life. Got it from your dad." "Bart," Jack growled, "mind your business." Jack scurried toward the far end of the counter. He flipped a section of the counter up, passed through, and hurried toward Bart. Jack pressed the

watch into his hand. "Be on your way," he growled, and shoved Bart toward the door. "Now, see here," Bart began, but halted when his gaze met Marcus's. He looked from Marcus to Justin. "Bloody gentry. Think they own the world." He continued grumbling as he shuffled toward the door. The hustle and bustle of passing hackneys and men's shouts filled the room as he

opened the door, then cut off abruptly when the door banged shut. Jack hurried back behind his counter. He stopped across from Marcus and Justin. "Now, what can I do for you gentleman?" From inside his jacket pocket, Marcus produced the pawn ticket for Elise's wedding band and placed it on the counter. "I am here about this ring."

The shop owner picked up the paper and began reading it. "Ahh, yes, I knew her husband would come for this one day. Yes, I did," he added as he scurried toward a curtained doorway in a corner behind the counter. "A fine piece of jewelry, this one. No' something a man is likely to be pleased about his wife selling." Jack paused, hand on the curtain and looked over his shoulder. "Your wife" He

looked from Justin to Marcus. "Er, your wife, m'lord?" Marcus nodded. "I can see you have the situation well in hand." Jack disappeared behind the curtain. A moment later, Jack burst through the curtain, a fragment of folded velvet in hand. He laid the fabric on the counter before Marcus and unwrapped it. Marcus stared at the gold band

glistening against the black fabric. "I—" he began. "Well, there you are," Justin interrupted. "Just as you knew it would be." Justin looked at him. "That'll teach you something of a woman's wrath." Marcus stared blankly at him. Justin turned to Jack. "You know how women are." "Oh, indeed, m'lord.

Indeed, I do." Justin produced a roll of banknotes from his pocket. "How much did you pay her?" Jack picked up the paper. "Here it is." He pointed a bony finger at the figure scrawled in the bottom corner of the paper. "Five sovereign." Justin counted out ten pound notes. "I trust this will account for your efforts."

Jack's eyes glittered. "Aye, m'lord. Indeed, it will, indeed, it will." He snatched up the notes as though expecting Justin to change his mind and stuffed them into his pocket. He rewrapped the ring, then produced a small wooden box from beneath the counter and placed the ring inside. He looked at Marcus and extended the box toward him. "There you go, m'lord.

As good as new." Marcus took the box. "Good day to you," Justin said, and looked at Marcus. "Come along, my good fellow. You'd best get back and deal with this matter straight away." Jack snickered, but Marcus paid no heed as he followed the earl out the door. Justin took a few steps on the walkway, then stopped, looking toward the

east. "What is it?" Marcus demanded, following his line of sight along the busy dock. Justin looked in the opposite direction. "We left Kiernan hours ago. I expected him before this." "He is on his way to London as I instructed." Justin grunted. "You don't know your son as well as you might think." "What matters is that he

knows me. I will make good on my threat to have him bound and taken back to Brahan Seer." "It doesn't matter if you threatened to dismember the boy, he will appear sooner or later. You should hope for sooner; that will allow you to keep him under your watchful eye." Marcus didn't reply. Instead, he opened the box containing the ring and

removed it from the velvet wrapping. His heartbeat raced. The ring had been given to Elise by another man, but it belonged to her— was once a part of her. He closed his fingers into a fist around the ring. The cold metal warmed within his grasp. If he held the only remaining part of her, he could once again hold her. "There is much in her past," Marcus said to himself.

"You're thinking of Price Ardsley," Justin said. Marcus looked up sharply. "He's here. Or was." "There is something going on with him." "Imagine if she one day demanded the twenty-five per cent interest in Landen Shipping." "By God, Marcus," Justin exclaimed. "You're as rich as the devil himself and still landed yourself an heiress."

Marcus started. "Bloody hell," Justin muttered. "Deem me the fool I am. The words were out of my mouth before my brain could catch up." Marcus gave a tired smile. "An uncommon state of mind for you." Justin sighed, then gave him a long look. "You are going to America, then?" "You won't dissuade me."

Justin nodded. "It is only right her brother know what this Price Ardsley is made of." "I owe her that much," Marcus replied. His mouth tightened. "By now the body is buried. Aye," he said when his cousin opened his mouth to comment. "I should have been there." "I can't blame you for being unable to bear seeing her lain in the ground."

Marcus gave a harsh laugh. "She will still be in the grave when I return." Justin gazed at the ships in the harbor. "We had better see the harbormaster." Marcus looked at him. "We? Nay, Justin. You aren't coming." The earl started forward. "I would say his office is where we entered the docks." Marcus hurried forward. Within arm's reach, he

grasped Justin's shoulder and forced Justin to face him. "I didn't ask you to come." His expression remained impassive. "Of course not." "I will not have you risking your life." "Will you have me bound and sent back to Whycham House?" "By God," Marcus burst out, "if that's what it takes." Mild amusement crossed Justin's face. "You know me

even less than your son." "Sophie will not allow this." "I already sent Sophie word I would be accompanying you to America." Marcus gaped. "I'm not a complete fool," Justin said. "She won't be pleased." "She won't be pleased we left her behind." Justin began walking.

"Justin!" Marcus strode after him. * * * * The following morning, Marcus leaned against the railing of the Sallinger, absently fingering the wedding band in his trouser pocket. He stared across the harbor at the docks. The shouts of drivers in passing hackneys, dock workers, and merchants buying and selling wares faded into the

background, replaced by a quiet whoosh as the brigantine skimmed through the water. Hearing footsteps behind him, he looked over his shoulder to see Justin approach. "The captain has been kind enough to extend an invitation for breakfast," Justin said. Marcus nodded. He glanced past the masts at the sun. Eleven years had passed

since he'd last been outside Great Britain, fourteen since crossing the Atlantic. He squinted against the sunlight. A month from now, he would be seeing this same sun from Boston Harbor. Only, it wouldn't be with Elise.

Chapter Eighteen Marcus rolled onto Elise. The darkness prevented discerning even the outline of her face, but he heard her sigh. His chest pressed upon her breasts and she shifted, teasing him with a slight arch of her body. His heart beat fiercely, his body hard with an arousal that circumvented

the disorientation clouding his mind. He yanked on her shift until he could spread her legs with a knee. He grasped her shoulders and, levering himself into position, thrust into her. With the first stroke, pleasure radiated through his body. Marcus pinned her against the mattress, each stroke increasing the deafening roar of blood through his veins. Elise gasped. He lowered

his full weight upon her, then rolled onto his back, keeping their bodies joined. Grasping the back of her knees, he slid them forward so that she straddled him. He gripped her waist and lifted her up until only the tip of his shaft remained inside her, then brought her down, up, down —she gripped his arms and he felt her weight shift as she threw her head back. He lifted her, slamming her onto

him, faster, then faster, gripping her slim waist in a clasp that frightened him. Pleasure shot through him. He slammed her down harder. Arching to meet her—Marcus jerked awake, grasping the wet sheet covering his hips as he groaned. He continued to pump upwards for several strokes before slumping back onto the mattress. His chest rose and fell in heavy gasps for several

moments before his senses cleared enough to recognize the cabin that had held him captive for twenty-eight nights. Shafts of muted light streamed through the small glass skylights. His gut wrenched. Another dream. He closed his eyes. In his mind, he saw the flutter of Elise's eyelids when he brought her to her release. His shaft twitched. A muted shout overhead brought the sudden

realization that the ship no longer rocked as it had while slicing through the Atlantic. Marcus yanked the sheet aside and jumped from bed. He strode the three paces to the door and stuck his head into the hallway. "Lad," he called to a boy at the far end of the corridor, "where are we?" The boy turned. "We're in Boston, sir. We've docked."

"Can you get me a messenger? I need a note delivered immediately." "Aye, sir," the boy said. "I'll go if you like." "Good lad," he said. "I'll have it ready in ten minutes." * * * * At five-fifty in the afternoon three days later, the door to the private dining room in the Boston Harbor Hotel opened and Marcus looked up from the glass of

wine he had been staring at. "A message for you, sir," the waiter said, and laid an envelope beside him on the table. Marcus saw the return address from Colonel Shay. He tore open the letter and read. My Dear Marcus, I have only now received word concerning Steven

Landen. The boy is a lieutenant in the US Army and functions as a tracker for them. As of three months ago, Lieutenant Landen was stationed with the 23rd Cavalry Division on the Tyger River in South Carolina. The Army is slow in updating its records; the boy may have been sent elsewhere in the meantime. I hope

this information will suffice to connect you with him. Another bit of news I know will interest you. My wife is acquainted with Mrs Charles Hampton, of the Burlington Hamptons. (No, I do not expect you to know them, but you may take my word that they are among the Boston elite.) Mrs

Hampton remembers the calamity which struck the Amelia on that fateful trip to England. Apparently, the story was widely discussed amongst Mrs Hampton's class, a class, as you know, far above my own station. My wife related to me the tale as told to her by Mrs Hampton as follows: When the

Amelia docked and her captain advised Price Ardsley of Elise Kingston's fate, he was grief-stricken. Your wife's brother, the young Lieutenant Landen, was seriously injured and went into forced convalescence for nearly three months. Even before his release from the hospital, he demanded a search be

mounted for his sister. The demand was flatly refused, most notably by Ardsley, though the directors of Landen Shipping did agree. They believed that had Mrs Kingston survived, she would have returned to Boston. None of this surprises you, as I well know. There is, however, one piece of information

I believe will. Steven Landen contends that the night Elise was lost at sea, he came upon Robert Kingston strangling her. Steven thwarted the murder attempt, and he and Elise escaped up to the deck. Marcus stared, his gaze fixed on the words he came upon Robert Kingston

strangling her. Elise's husband had tried to kill her. His chest tightened. This explained why she shot him. Marcus closed his eyes. Elise, why didn't you tell me? He forced back the pain, opened his eyes, and refocused on the letter. While they were on deck, Robert appeared. Elise shot her husband. Robert pulled a pistol

from his pocket after she drew on him, and returned fire. Steven took the bullet he says was meant for his sister. When Steven regained consciousness, the captain informed him Elise had fallen overboard and that Steven had tried rescuing her by cutting down the longboat. Steven has no memory of

this. Ardsley proposed that Robert Kingston wanted to eliminate Elise in order to claim her shares in Landen Shipping. Ardsley preached this philosophy with a depth of gravity that Mrs Hampton described as '"most admirable.'" I wish I could be of more service. Travel

safely to South Carolina. I look forward to learning of your success when you return. Sincerely, Colonel Martin Shay "South Carolina," Marcus said in a low voice, but his mind still staggered with the picture of Robert Kingston strangling his wife —my wife, Marcus's mind

shot back. Memory of her broken body after the carriage crash filled his mind. The clock that hung on the wall near the door gonged. He jerked his gaze onto the clock, dispelling the bloody vision. Six o'clock. Justin would arrive any minute. Even as he folded the letter with expert precision and set it beside him on the table, the door opened and Justin entered. A waiter

followed close behind. The waiter pulled Justin's chair out as he seated himself across from Marcus. Justin lifted the wine bottle sitting on the table and poured the remainder of the wine into his glass. He handed the bottle to the waiter. "Another bottle, if you please, and…" He paused, then focused on Marcus. "No dinner yet?" Marcus gave a slight

shake of his head. Justin turned to the waiter. "Have you any pigeon pie?" The waiter looked horrified. "This is not a port tavern, sir." Justin raised a brow. "Can you name a port tavern that serves pigeon pie? Never mind. You do have filet mignon?" The waiter straightened. "Of course."

"Be kind enough to bring two then, along with whatever you Americans consider appropriate accompaniments." Justin reached for his wine, clearly dismissing him. The waiter looked as though he would like to bludgeon Justin with the wine bottle but turned stiffly and left the room. Marcus leaned back in his chair. "You have a knack

for condescension." "Never say you think the fellow was right?" "Not right," Marcus replied. "Simply not worth the time." Justin snorted. "Had I not done it, you would have." Marcus started to reply, but stopped short at the gleam that appeared in Justin's eye. "Marcus, prepare yourself… she is alive." Marcus's hand jerked,

upsetting his glass. Wine spread across the linen tablecloth. Justin started, nearly tipping over his own glass. "Bloody hell," Marcus cursed, and set the glass upright. He ignored the stain. "What are you talking about?" "Three months ago, Ardsley announced that Elise had returned to America." "Three months ago? But

that was before we wed." "Listen," Justin cut in, "there's a very interesting stipulation in her father's will. If Elise dies, a body must be presented as evidence, or five years must pass before Ardsley can take possession of her stock." "How does that prove she's alive?" "Ardsley claims to have her in a convalescent home." Shock ricocheted through

Marcus. "An insane asylum?" "Yes." His mind reeled. Elise, alive? And in an asylum. "'Tis not possible," he said in a hoarse voice. "No?" Justin held his gaze. "For the past six months, Ardsley has been attempting to get Landen Shipping's board of directors to agree to a large loan he wants in order to expand the shipping company to include

west coast trade. Many of the board members plan on retiring in the next few years and don't relish the idea of putting their life savings at risk. They have a date set three weeks from tomorrow to settle the matter." "Ardsley needs Elise's twenty-five percent interest to control the vote," Marcus said in a near whisper. "Fifty-one percent," Justin rejoined.

"What?" "A year after Elise married, Steven Landen signed his interest in the company over to her." "My God." Justin's brows lifted. "It's rather late in the game for Ardsley to present Elise's body, don't you think?" "An insane asylum," Marcus murmured. "If it is true…" 'No Campbells, or

anyone else, can harm you,' he had told her. 'I can protect you.' Wed only two days and he had utterly failed her. "Marcus." Justin's sharp voice cut into the picture of Elise huddled in a tiny filthy cell, hands clamped over her ears to drown out the screams of the other inmates. "I saw her body," Marcus said. "If that wasn't Elise, then who—" Justin's mouth thinned.

"That is a mystery to be solved—but not one we cannot solve from here. Agreed?" Marcus stared. "Aye." "What have you learned of Steven?" Justin asked. Marcus's mind registered the letter lying on the table. He picked it up and handed it toward Justin. The earl unfolded the paper and began reading. A moment later, he murmured,

"Shay. Wait. Shay. This cannot be the fellow whose son you saved while on campaign in America?" Marcus nodded. Justin frowned. "What prompted you to contact him?" "Landen Shipping informed me Steven Landen was serving in the Army." Justin laughed. "Good of them to be so obliging." "Colonel Shay located

the boy." "Boy?" "He is twenty-five." "I expected someone older than Elise." "I thought the same," Marcus said. "Something more you need to know," Justin said. "If Elise doesn't return from the dead, her shares go to the next living blood relative." "Steven Landen would control Landen Shipping,"

Marcus said. "Steven Landen does control Landen Shipping. Elise's stock isn't his—not until the allotted five years passes—but he controls her vote until then." Marcus frowned. "Then why hasn't Ardsley simply killed him?" "Because Steven's will bequeaths his shares and controlling interest to a distant cousin who lives in

New York." "My God," Marcus murmured. "Steven Landen is of no consequence—" "If Price Ardsley has Elise," Justin finished for him. "Why the bloody hell is her brother not here?" Marcus burst out. "Where did you get this information?" Justin grinned. "There is always a disgruntled employee to be found." The

earl returned his attention to the letter. A moment later, he looked up, shock written on his face. "My God, she shot her husband? Surely, it can't be true?" "I believe every word," Marcus said. Justin glanced at the letter. "You knew nothing of this? Of course not," he added. Marcus gave a hollow laugh. "I knew I wanted her.

Nothing else mattered." The earl nodded. "Love blinds a man." As does passion, Marcus added silently, then said, "I meant to leave immediately to find Steven, but if it is possible Elise is here—" he broke off, still unable to grasp the possibility. "You must find the boy. He's the key to getting to Ardsley. I never met his sister. If our story is to hold

any weight, it must come from you." "But Elise…" A glint appeared in Justin's eye. "I will find her." Marcus grasped his cousin's shoulder and squeezed, then released him. "I'll depart tomorrow. We—" The door opened and the waiter appeared, a plate of food in each hand. He approached the table and began to set Marcus's plate

before him but halted, his gaze falling on the winestained tablecloth. He straightened. "I shall replace the linen." He turned to leave, plates still in hand. "Nay," Marcus said. "Leave the plates. We will live with the spilt wine." The waiter looked as if he'd been asked to strip naked and run through the streets of Boston. Marcus rested his gaze

on him. "Leave the plates, lad." The man did as instructed. "If you need anything—" "We will call for you," Marcus cut in. "Until then, see that we aren't disturbed." The waiter blinked, but gave a stiff bow and left. Justin picked up his knife and fork. "I said you'd cut him to the quick." "I'll be back well before

Landen Shipping's next meeting," Marcus said. "Then I will cut Ardsley to the quick." * * * * Marcus slowed his horse in the dense forest and scanned the ground. The tracks in the soft South Carolina ground were less than an hour old. He glanced up through the trees. At most, the afternoon sun would be in the sky another two hours. At

a sudden commotion in the trees ahead, Marcus jerked his hand to the musket in his saddle holster, but relaxed when a flock of bobwhite quail took flight. The leather fringes on the sleeves of the buckskin he wore swayed violently, then came to a rest as he focused again on the tracks and urged his horse forward. Only a moment later he caught sight of two horses

picking their way through the trees about seventy-five feet ahead. He looked closer. One of the horses was riderless. He'd been following the tracks of two men, where— the distinct sound of a rifle being cocked answered the incomplete thought. "Take the musket from its holster and toss it," a male voice said from above him. Marcus hesitated and a strong "Mister" settled the matter.

He slid the Brown Bess musket from its holster and tossed it to the ground. "I'm not here to cause trouble." The sound of the rifle's hammer being uncocked from above was followed by the light drop of the man from the trees onto the ground behind Marcus. "You tracked me some distance before I realized you were on my trail," the voice said. "Not bad for an

Englishman." Marcus slowly turned his horse and found himself facing a young man dressed like himself, except the other's clothes bore testament of the wearer's time in the saddle. This was Steven Landen. Those deep brown eyes—and the challenge they held—were all too familiar. "Scottish Highlands," Marcus said. "Well, Highlander, what

are you doing in South Carolina tracking me?" Marcus glanced at the Baker rifle the boy held loosely at his side—not so loose he couldn't yank it into position before Marcus was upon him. Arrogant pup. But perhaps it was an arrogance born out of experience. The British-made Baker rifle was known for its precision aim, a very good reason for a US Army tracker to carry the

weapon. Steven's gaze shifted past him and Marcus glanced over his shoulder to see the rider he'd spotted a moment ago standing a few feet away. He saw now what he hadn't discerned before. The buckskin-dressed man was Indian. Marcus faced Steven. "How did you discover I was on your trail?" "I'm the best tracker this

side of the Mississippi," Steven said with unabashed candor. "White tracker, that is." "You are Steven Landen, then?" The boy gave no indication Marcus had hit the mark, only continued to study him. "We need to talk. Privately," Marcus added. "Anything you have to say can be said in front of

Joseph." "'Tis about your sister." Steven's nonchalant demeanor vanished. "My sister is dead." "Nay. She was lost off the coast of Solway Firth, Scotland." Steven's jaw tightened. He looked at the Indian. "Joseph." Marcus didn't hear the man leave but knew he had when Steven swung his gaze

back to him. "You have any idea how many people have information concerning my sister?" Steven's expression turned speculative. "None of them ever tracked me through the wilderness. You must feel damn confident about your information. You have five minutes. I should warn you, however, if I don't find your story amusing, I'll kill you." A melancholy warmth

rippled through Marcus. "That sounds like something your sister would say." Steven's gaze turned icy. "If you want to delay dying, don't bother with the amusing anecdotes." "I will begin with this." Marcus reached into the front pocket of his buckskin jacket. Steven pointed his rifle at Marcus. "Easy." Marcus paused, then slowly produced his and

Elise's wedding certificate from the pocket. He dismounted, then strode to Steven and extended the certificate to him. Steven rested his rifle against the tree he'd been hiding in. "Don't think we're alone," he said as he unfolded the document, "I saved Joseph's life once. He can't return to his Chickasaw tribe until he returns the favor, so he's hoping like hell someone

will try to kill me." Steven scanned the document. A moment later, he looked at Marcus and gave a short laugh. "You got the name wrong. Elise is not a Merriwether." "Nay," Marcus said, "she's a MacGregor." Half an hour later, Marcus laid Elise's death certificate on the ground between him and Steven. The boy stared at the document.

The fire they had built flickered off his pale face in the waning daylight. He lifted his gaze to Marcus. "No death certificate was issued for Elise." He stared at Marcus for a long moment before saying, "I have no way of knowing if a word of what you say is true." "Perhaps you do." Marcus retrieved the gold band from his front pocket. He laid the ring on the death

certificate. Steven looked at the ring, his brow furrowing in thought, then he picked it up and held it up to the firelight. Marcus watched him read the words etched inside the band —For all eternity—words he'd read a thousand times over the last month. Steven set the ring back on the document and looked at him. "Why tell me any of this?" He nodded toward the

death certificate. "She's dead." Marcus took a deep breath. "Mayhap not." He produced the next piece of evidence: the notice of reward for Elise's body that had appeared in the Sunday Times. By the time Marcus finished with the more bizarre half of his tale, Steven's expression had hardened. "I knew Price was a fortune

hunter, but this goes beyond anything I suspected. Twenty-six percent of Landen Shipping remained held in trust for me until I reached twenty-one. When the shares became mine, Price wasn't pleased, but he still held controlling interest. Elise married Robert when she was twenty-one, four years before she would come into possession of her inheritance. Not that it mattered; Robert

controlled the purse." "The woman you describe is different than the one I knew. Elise—" Marcus laughed, "She has done things many men would grow fainthearted over." Steven picked up the stick he'd laid beside him earlier and poked the fire. "She never wanted for courage. That night on the Amelia, she surprised even me." Steven looked at him

with sudden surprise. "Damn! Her journal." Marcus tensed. "What?" Steven plunged the stick into the ground. "Amelia's doctor instructed Elise to keep a journal in order to chronicle her illness. After she died, Elise began doing research. Actually, she began the research before Amelia died but, by then, it was too late." "Too late?"

"Amelia was diagnosed with everything from heart trouble to nervous disorders. No one could offer a cure. You won't believe this, I wouldn't have believed it either had I not caught Robert trying to kill her, but Elise suspected Robert of poisoning Amelia." Marcus went cold. "Bloody hell." "I learned of her suspicions from the journal.

By then, Robert was gone." He gave Marcus a frank look. "Despite how I felt about Robert, if I hadn't walked in when he was strangling Elise that night, I would have attributed her suspicions to… well…" Marcus clenched his fist. "If the bastard were alive, I would kill him myself." Steven gave a cold laugh. "I would have done it long ago."

"Aye," he said. "I wager you would have." Steven laid the stick back on the ground beside him. "Price being in Scotland and that bounty don't prove Elise didn't die in the carriage accident." Marcus held his gaze. "Three months ago, Ardsley told the Landen Shipping board of directors that Elise was here in America." Steven went white.

"Are you all right, lad?" "When Elise married, I gave her my shares in Landen Shipping." Marcus gave a slow nod. "The stakes are even higher. Ardsley has begun negotiations for a large loan to Landen Shipping. He wants to expand the shipping routes." Steven started. "What?" "He began negotiations six months ago."

"How can he hope to make the vote without me?" Steven's lip curled up in a derisive twist. "Of course." "Aye," Marcus said. "He would not need you if he has Elise."

Chapter Nineteen Marcus strode into the Single Penny tavern with Steven behind him. Marcus glanced back at his young companion. They'd spent seven days on the road and the boy looked none the worse for wear. No one would suspect he wasn't a regular in the establishment.

The deception went beyond the rough clothes he wore. The metamorphosis from upper-class gentleman to the rough, bawdy character ready to yank his knife from its sheath and open the gullet of any man who looked in his direction was complete. Steven certainly wasn't the typical wealthy American. The boy's gaze rested for an instant on a table in the far corner of the room, then

moved on. Marcus glanced in the same direction and realized he had seen Justin sitting with another man. Even in the shadows of the dimly lit room, Marcus understood what had snagged Steven's attention. Despite the rough clothes Justin wore, the way his manicured fingers curled around the beer mug he drank from gave away the fact he wasn't a typical river rat.

Steven looked at Marcus. Marcus gave a small jerk of his head and Steven followed as he strode to the table. Justin set the mug of ale on the table and looked up at their approach. Marcus slid into the seat to his right. Steven circled the table and took the seat to Justin's left. "Marcus," Justin's cultured English accent remained evident despite the hoarse quality he injected into

his voice. "Justin," Marcus greeted in a thick, Scottish brogue. "Meet William Sheldon of the Boston police department," Justin said. "Shhh," Sheldon hissed, ducking his head down. "Mr Sheldon," Justin said, "tell my friend what you told me." Mr Sheldon looked about. He sat back suddenly and Marcus would have

urged him on, but a tavern maid approached the table, two ales in hand. "Good evening, gentlemen," she said, setting an ale before Marcus, then going around William to place the other in front of Steven. She straightened, saying, "You have a choice of jackrabbit stew or roast pig." "Jackrabbit stew, my girl, all around," Steven spoke up. Marcus hid his surprise

at hearing the guttural accent Steven employed and nodded to the girl in assent when she looked at him. She started for the bar at the back of the room and Marcus focused on William. "Lad," he said in low tones, "proceed with your tale, if ye please." William cast a nervous glance about the room, then leaned forward. "Your friend here," he nodded toward

Justin, "promised the remainder of the fee." "Aye," Marcus said. "Whatever he agreed to, you'll get." "If you don't mind, sir," William said, "I'll have my payment now." Justin pulled forth a small pouch and set it on the table. William reached for it, but Marcus laid a hand on his when it covered the pouch. "The money stays where it is

until I've heard what you have to say." William nodded, and Marcus withdrew his hand. William released the pouch and placed his elbows on the table. "There's a place up north, a hundred and fifty miles or so, Bainbridge Hospital. A month ago, a man incarcerated his wife there because she believes she was Cleopatra in a past life." "And what makes ye

think this woman is the one we are looking for?" Marcus asked. "The description your friend here gave. The woman is dark haired, late twenties and slim of build. The man is much older and seems to fit your description. He's rich, sure enough." William sat back and Marcus saw the tavern maid approach again, tray in hand with four bowls of stew on it.

She set a bowl before each of them and looked at the men. "Anything else?" "That'll be all," Steven said, and hunched over his bowl. He began clinking the spoon loudly against the side of the bowl. The woman turned as he took a hearty mouthful. William gulped a spoonful of stew. He chewed, his gaze following her until she was out of hearing range. He took

one more bite of food as two men passed, headed for a nearby table. William pushed the bowl forward. "As I was saying, the man is rich. He's left strict orders that no one is to visit his wife and she is to be kept under heavy sedation." Marcus's hand balled into a fist and, before realizing it, he started to push to his feet. Justin grasped his shoulder and shoved him

back into his seat. "Easy there, my fellow," he said, his voice all amusement. "You would think it was your own wife there instead of— well"—Justin flashed a grin —"you know how it is, Mr Sheldon, when a woman cuckolds a man." William nodded. "Indeed, I do." "Seems the lady was burning both ends of the candle," Justin said. "It's my

guess her husband is teaching the wench a lesson far beyond that you could serve up, my boy." He gave Marcus a hearty clap on the shoulder. Marcus slumped back into his chair. "She didna' cuckold me," he muttered in a sullen a voice, and looked at William. "'Tis no' enough to be sure she's the one." "She is the most likely one." Marcus exchanged a

glance with Justin. "What do you mean 'the most likely one?'" "There's another woman, but she doesn't seem a good fit. A raving lunatic. Has nightmares about a child who was poisoned—" Marcus started. Justin straightened and Steven dropped his spoon into his nearly empty bowl. William looked from one man to the other.

"Where is this woman?" Marcus demanded. "Twenty miles outside of Boston in Danvers Sanitarium." "Danvers?" Steven repeated in a loud voice. Marcus shot him a warning look. Steven lowered his voice. "That's an asylum for the criminally insane." Marcus felt the blood rush to his head.

"What are her circumstances?" Justin cut in. "Her father brought her," William replied. "She suffers from delusions that her child has returned from the dead." William shivered. "Most of the men working there fear her. There's nothing like the fear of the devil to put the fear of God into a man." Or the fear of a courageous woman, Marcus silently added.

Minutes later, Marcus stepped from the tavern onto the dimly lit street between Justin and Steven. Once out of sight of the tavern, Marcus looked at Justin. "I am the spurned lover?" Justin grinned. "You weren't anything until I thought you would do poor William in." "Who is this William?" Justin gave a deprecating

laugh. "A Boston lawenforcement officer." Marcus addressed Steven, "What do you know of Boston law enforcement?" "I don't know William, but many Boston police officers are in a position to know information like what he told us." Marcus nodded. "Where does Landen Shipping hold its board meetings?" "The Brill Building,

downtown Boston," Steven answered. Justin said, "Ardsley will have to transport her from the sanitarium to the meeting," "Aye." Marcus replied. "Only, we will meet him long before he reaches Boston." * * * * The sun peeked over the horizon. Not a single traveler had appeared on the road leading to Danvers Sanitarium while they lay

hidden under the cover of darkness. Marcus tapped Justin on the shoulder and signaled that he would return momentarily. He slipped from the trees overlooking the road east of them, crept through tall grass, brambles, and bush up a hill. The wildly growing foliage ended abruptly. Across a vast manicured lawn, the view of the sprawling, ivy-covered, brick building—his first in

the light of day—chilled him to the bone. The pointed towers and peaked gables had lost the haunting look their silhouettes projected in the twilight hours and became, instead, the bared teeth of The Witches' Castle. A shudder ran through him. What sort of twisted mind had built a sanitarium on the spot where John Hathorne, the most fanatical judge of the Salem

witch trials, once lived? Marcus's heart hardened at sight of the iron-barred windows. He brought his gaze down to the stone steps of the front entrance. Marked on both sides by wrought iron railing, they lead up to a circular, covered porch. Columns supported the porch roof on either side. He looked again at the windows, studying one, then another, of what seemed an endless array

of cells. Which of those tiny rooms held Elise prisoner? So close. Marcus envisioned forcing his way past the attendants who fed off the brutality they inflicted upon the helpless inmates. The image, however, was violently replaced by the realization that those men would hold him until Price arrived. Then any power embodied in the information

he held would become worthless—and Elise would be lost forever. He closed his eyes in an effort to banish the thought but saw, instead, her frail form, lying on a thin pallet, hands crossed over her breasts in readiness for the coffin. He shook off the vision, then turned from the menacing asylum. He crept down the slope and returned to Justin and Steven. Marcus scanned the

empty road before whispering, "What has gone wrong?" "Mayhap Ardsley took her out before we arrived?" Justin asked. Steven shook his head. "No. You heard what our scout said when we arrived yesterday evening. Price hasn't been to the sanitarium." Marcus started to speak, but Steven cut him off. "The surrounding area is being

watched. Had anyone ridden cross-country, we would have been alerted." "A single man could have slipped past your men," Marcus said. "Does Ardsley ride?" "Quite well," Steven replied. "But he couldn't have approached the hospital without being spotted. As you have seen, Danvers is surrounded by open country." "He would need a

carriage for Elise," Justin said. "Aye," Marcus agreed, "but if he didn't plan on bringing her to the meeting today, he would have come by horseback." "If he doesn't need her at the meeting, he may not have come at all," Justin added. "He has no hope of swinging the vote without her," Steven said. "He must bring her. Why keep her alive

if he isn't going to present her?" That was a question Marcus couldn't consider. * * * * Another day of living with the knowledge that Elise was locked in hell had worn Marcus beyond thin. The Single Penny's tavern door swung open and he snapped his attention onto the newcomer, his brother-inlaw. His heart rate

accelerated. The grim expression on the lad's face didn't bode well. Steven assessed the room in the same manner he had the day they'd met William Shelby, then pressed through the cluster of men milling near the door and shuffled across the room. He slid into the seat opposite Marcus and without preamble whispered, "I'm a complete fool." "What has happened?"

Marcus demanded. "We were so occupied with Danvers—so sure Elise was there—" "Are you saying she is not?" Steven shook his head. "No. Only that our knowing she is there created a distraction." He gave a harsh laugh. "If I didn't know any better, I would swear Price planned it." His mouth dipped into a deep scowl. "It

occurred to me last night that I should question Price's servants." "Wouldn't Ardsley stop you?" Marcus asked. "If he knew, yes. There is little love lost between Price and his servants. The housekeeper, in particular, despises him." Steven halted and looked past Marcus. He realized the barmaid must be approaching with ale in hand. An instant later, she appeared

at his right and set an ale before Steven. "Any of that jackrabbit stew left?" Steven asked. "Always got jackrabbit stew," she replied. "Two," Steven said, and she left. He drank from his mug, then said, "Mrs Hartley is a jewel of a housekeeper and Price knows it. Every day, after lunch, she goes to the market. This afternoon, I met her there." Steven

paused. "I've always wondered why she stays with Price. A woman with her skills could easily find another post. She doesn't live in terror of him as the other servants do. "This is the only concession I have ever known him to make in his household. That, too, puzzled me. Price isn't a man to tolerate being questioned. Today, I discovered why she stays.

Mrs Hartley has a son. He is now thirty years of age. About fifteen years ago, he killed a man in a brothel brawl. The dead man was a well-respected businessman. All these years, Price has been holding this over her head." "Why tell you this after all this time?" Steven gave a low grunt. "Two reasons, I suspect. One, she likes Elise. The second,

once I told her Price was holding Elise captive she must have realized that there was a great chance I would deal with him legally. That would free her from Price's hold." "Bloody hell," Marcus burst out. "You didn't inform her of my presence?" Steven glanced around the tavern and Marcus cursed his temper. The younger man leaned

closer. "Of course not. But the woman's no fool. She knew I was up to something. Nothing goes on in any household the servants don't know, sometimes even before other family members, and with good reason; they're smarter than the devil himself. Our stew is coming." Steven slumped back in his chair. Marcus did the same as the barmaid set a bowl of

stew before him, then Steven. She turned and headed back to the bar. Steven placed his elbows on the table and took another drink of ale before stirring the stew. "Mrs Hartley knew that Price told the board Elise was here in America," he said, and took a bite of stew. "He's in the habit of having late meetings in his home with board members. Last night, a woman was brought in. She

was dressed in black. Heavily veiled and heavily sedated. Price carried her to one of the guestrooms on the second floor. He wouldn't allow anyone into the room when he took her up. Half an hour later, he called for Mrs Hartley. Imagine her shock at seeing Elise in the bed, looking as if she had all but stepped into the grave." Marcus's heart missed a beat. "How did he get her past

us—we left Danvers too soon." "Don't lose yourself just yet, MacGregor. I thought the same, but there was something wrong with Mrs Hartley's story." "What do you mean?" "She said a single candle burned on a table in the corner of the room. The covers were tucked tightly around the woman's shoulders. Despite the dim

lighting, Mrs Hartley observed the emaciated neck and hollow cheeks of the woman—and her hair—you know how thick Elise's hair is." "Aye." Marcus remembered well the silky feel of the thick tresses between his fingers. "Mrs Hartley said her hair was so thin that her scalp was visible in places." "'Tis but two months

since Arsdley abducted her. How is it possible—" "It isn't," Steven cut in. "The resemblance must have been strong for Mrs Hartley to believe the woman was Elise, but Mrs Hartley said the woman was barely recognizable as the Elise she had seen just a year ago. Elise lost weight due to the stress of Amelia's illness, but she was, overall, very healthy." Marcus nodded. "The

housekeeper thought Elise had been wasting away an entire year." "Right." Steven took another spoonful of stew. "Consider," he said between chewing, "it's not yet two months since Elise disappeared. Had Price starved her to the point of shedding that much weight, her heart would probably have given out." "The woman is not

Elise." Marcus leaned back in his chair. "Why an impersonator? Why not simply incapacitate Elise?" "I can only guess," Steven said, "but—" "But," Marcus interrupted, "he will not risk her leaving the asylum." Steven nodded. "Price is… canny." His expression turned pained. "Had I been more aware—" "Nay," Marcus cut him

off. "The man is clever and he can't have done this alone." Suddenly, Langley's words came back to Marcus. "Ye have a spy, MacGregor." Price Ardsley had help. The truth hit like a landslide. The Campbells. Marcus recalled the day they attacked the women at the loch and the look on the Campbell warrior's face when Elise called out that Nell had been taken. The man recognized

the American accent. They had come for Elise—for the second time. Marcus suddenly understood why they hadn't accosted her when they kidnapped her: the ten thousand pound bounty. But how had they known—more importantly, who at Brahan Seer had aided them? "MacGregor." Marcus shook from his thoughts at hearing Steven's voice.

"What is it?" Steven asked. "Ardsley may not be as omnipotent as he appears." "What do you mean?" "I believe some old enemies of mine were in league with him," Marcus said. "Elise had a bad habit of leaving Brahan Seer without an escort." Steven paused in taking another drink of ale. "Brahan Seer?"

"Our home in the Highlands. She used to go alone outside the castle." Steven grimaced. "I can believe she would be so foolish. Even as a girl, she drove Father to distraction, coming and going without permission." "You are saying this is a fault of hers?" The younger man barked a rough laugh. "MacGregor, if you're only now coming to

this conclusion, I have no sympathy for you." Marcus smiled faintly. "The woman can be a pain in the arse. She is mine, nonetheless." "These enemies," Steven prodded. "Aye. They kidnapped Elise once, tried a second time." Steven regarded him for a long moment, then shook his head and took another bite

of stew. Marcus liked the lad. "The board meeting," he said. "The vote is to be held at Ardsley's home tonight?" "No, tomorrow. But the board members are to meet at Price's home tonight. I wager Price is going to let them see Elise in her sick bed then, when he presents the paper tomorrow—a paper signed by my sister—it will be a fait accompli."

"What time this evening?" "Eight o'clock." Marcus glanced at the clock hanging on the wall behind the bar. Four fiftyfive. "We have three hours." Steven raised a brow. "If we show up and claim the impostor…" "Aye," Marcus said. "If he wants my wife's fifty-one percent of Landen Shipping, he will have no choice but to

return Elise to me." "We should have stormed the damned hospital," Steven muttered darkly. Marcus tensed, remembering all too well the strength of will it had taken to keep from hiring fifty men and raiding Danvers. Strength of will. Nay. Justin had been the voice of reason. They weren't in Scotland, Justin had reminded him. Here,

Marcus was naught but a British subject on foreign soil. He had always thought of himself as a man of logic and not given to rash action. But, until now, he hadn't realized how much he relied upon his position as the Marquess of Ashlund—even more—the son of the Duke of Ashlund. Ah, Ryan, my ancestor, how far our paths have diverged.

For the first time in his life, Marcus understood the true nature of Ryan MacGregor. All these years, Marcus thought he understood him—thought it was Ryan who demanded recompense for the wrongs done to the MacGregors over the centuries. But, in truth, how could Marcus, a man of wealth and position, understand a man who possessed nothing? A man

who fought with the only weapon he had: his mind. Marcus laughed inwardly. How many years had he fought his enemies with the sword—the very thing Ryan had fought against? Marcus turned his attention to his brother-inlaw. "We are far from finished with Price Ardsley. We shall deal with him in a way that brings about his demise because of his own

actions." Steven's gaze intensified. "All I ask is that I be allowed to witness his end." "Aye, lad," Marcus replied in a quiet voice. "You will be one among many." * * * * Marcus watched, concealed by the evening shadows among the trees, as the seventh carriage that night passed through the iron gates of Price Ardsley's mansion.

The crunch of gravel beneath the carriage wheels grew fainter until the high and low seesaw pitch of cricket music again filled the quiet. Marcus's horse shifted beneath him and he gave the animal a soothing stroke. Steven's horse nickered softly, nuzzling his companion's nose, and Steven patted his shoulder. Marcus looked at him. "What time is it?"

Steven pulled a pocket watch from the breast pocket of his suit. "Nearly eight," he whispered, and slipped the watch back into its place. Marcus returned his attention to the mansion. "Is that the last of them?" "Unless Brentley rode with one of the other board members, no." "You are sure your vicechairman will attend?" Steven grunted. "Price

would be glad not to have Brentley attend. Brentley is a thorn in his side. But Brentley has been chairman since the inception of the company and the other members would not attend a meeting of such importance without him." Steven peered down the road and they lapsed into silence. The cricket symphony abruptly halted and, an instant later, the faint clop of hooves and turning of

carriage wheels sounded on the public road up ahead. Marcus squinted until the outline of a coach took shape in the darkness. "Brentley," Steven said. The carriage passed through the gates and the darkness, once again, closed in around it. The nightlife sprang back to life. Still, Marcus waited several long moments, acutely aware of his companion's impatience

before saying, "Now, Brother," and urged his horse from the cover of trees. They slowed their horses through the gates and onto the gravel of the private lane. The cool air of fall brushed across Marcus's face, then snaked its way between his collar and neck in chilled fingers. The road wound through the grounds until, at last, a faint glow lit a beacon through the thick trees to the left. The

road made a sudden left turn and the mansion came into view, two gas lights blazing on each side of the doors. No servant waited to greet them. All expected guests had arrived. Both men dismounted at the base of the stairs and hurried to the door. Steven entered with Marcus close behind. A butler appeared from a door at the end of the hallway carrying a tray laden with decanter and

glasses. "Sir!" he cried, rattling the tray. "Simons," Steven replied, and started up the grand black walnut stairway to his right. "Sir," Simons called again as Marcus followed Steven up the staircase. "I'll see myself to the second floor," Steven called over his shoulder. The tray was set down

with a clatter and was followed by the light tread of feet on the stairs behind them. "Simons is persistent," Steven said in a low voice, taking the stairs two at a time. The staircase followed the wall straight up to the second floor. The landing turned sharply left at the top. Marcus strode down the corridor alongside Steven, who stopped at the fifth door on the left.

"Sir," Simons called from the landing. Steven reached for the doorknob and Marcus saw his hand shake. "Lad," he said, gently. "Sir!" Simons cried, his voice nearly hysterical. "You know how Mr Ardsley does not like strangers upstairs." Simons had nearly reached them. Steven looked at Marcus, gave a single nod, then said

as he pushed open the door, "He's no stranger, Simons; he is my brother-in-law." The words "brother-inlaw" rang in the silence of the bedchambers. Simons hit the doorframe with an audible slap. "Mr Ardsley, sir," he said between heavy breaths, "I tried stopping them." Marcus locked gazes with the powerfully-built golden-haired man who stood

nearest the bed. He looked to be about ten years older than himself. He outweighed Marcus by twenty pounds, but his fit frame testified that he wasn't a man given to excessive drinking or any such habits that would quicken the infirmities of age. Cold blue eyes stared back at Marcus. Here, at last, he understood what Elise so feared. "I am—" Simons began,

but Price Ardsley said in a quiet voice, "Go along, Simons. We're fine." Price shifted his gaze to Steven. "Steven, I wasn't expecting you." "I am sure," Steven remarked. Ardsley focused on Marcus, and said, "Sir?" His tone was quizzical, but Marcus understood the flicker of expression that had said, Lord Ashlund, you are a

surprise. "Pardon me, Gentlemen," Marcus said, and brushed past the men who stood in stunned silence. He felt Price's eyes settle on him as he sat on the bed beside the woman Price claimed was Elise. Marcus took her cold, limp hand in his and lifted it to his lips. "Elise," he said in a choked whisper, then gently lay her hand upon her breast. Sliding his arms beneath her, he lifted

her, bed covers and all, from the bed. A chorus of protests sounded as Marcus turned toward the men gathered in the room.

Chapter Twenty Elise felt herself lifted into a sitting position. Next came the familiar cold rim of the metal cup against her lips. Do not drink, she warned herself silently. The thirst doesn't matter. Her mouth felt like sandpaper, parched from lack of water, but the laudanum-laced water held a

greater fear than death. She allowed her head to loll to one side. A meaty hand cupped her cheek and forced her into a more upright position. Liquid dribbled past her lips and into her mouth. She kept mouth and throat muscles lax and, despite the cold of the liquid as it trickled down her neck, none made its way down her throat. "She can barely sit up," a coarse female voice said.

"Why does she need more?" "'Tis the doctor's orders," came the all-too-familiar Irish brogue of Ramsey. "Bah!" the woman said. "If you want to waste your time forcing it down her throat, do so. I have better things to do." The cup left Elise's mouth and the hand released her face. Again, she allowed her head to loll to one side. "You're right," Ramsey

said. Her head was laid back on the pallet. "They will dose her this evening. She's not likely to come out of this stupor before then." The woman laughed. "She's not likely to come out of that stupor ever." "How is the bleeding?" Ramsey asked. Elise tensed inwardly, calling forth every ounce of

strength not to react openly to what she knew was forthcoming. She felt her skirts lifted, then cool air washed her legs as the woman drew back the fabric. Elise bit back tears when her legs were spread, though only slightly this time. Soon, she told herself, soon. If I can convince them for just one more day that I don't need the laudanum, I will find a way out of this

madhouse. There came a prod to the rags between her legs, and the woman said, "Not so bad." "Let the night shift deal with it," Ramsey muttered. "The things they ask us to do." The skirts were yanked back over her legs and she lay motionless, counting the ten steps her jailers took to the door, then the creak of the door as it opened and the

echo of the clank being pulled shut. She waited a long moment. Was he still there? How many times had the Irishman stared in at her through the small, barred window on the door? Twenty —thirty times? She had lost count. There came the soft but distinct scrape she had come to know. She willed her body not to tremble. Ramsey had, again, waited for the

woman to go, then opened the shutter on the window to stare at her from the other side. Minutes passed—more, she thought, than he had taken before. It wouldn't matter if she screamed. In this place, everyone screamed. The opening swished closed. Elise began to tremble so badly she feared her teeth would chatter. Most rooms were built to keep the sound in, but her room seemed to

amplify sound. She imagined her persecutors listening for the slightest sound so they might pounce upon her, pronounce her stupor a lie, and administer more laudanum. Tears rolled from the corners of her eyes. She had lost her child—Marcus's child —less than two months in the womb. Even in her laudanum-induced state, she had known the moment the

blood began to flow. How many days ago that had been, she couldn't say. There had been no pain, the laudanum had ensured that, but she had known. The degradation that followed paled in comparison to the despair. Laudanum had been the instrument that had taken the child's life, but Price was the babe's murderer as certainly as if he had squeezed the life from the infant with his own

hands. Robert had taken her child and her brother. Now Price had taken her second child. Between them, they had stripped her of all she held dear. Not all, her mind reminded her. There was still Marcus. More tears flowed. Dear God, let him accept my death. Do not bring him to America. * * * * Marcus locked gazes with Price Ardsley. "My wife

and I are leaving." He started toward the door. The men, transfixed by the strange happenings, parted as he brushed past them. All but one—standing closest to the door—who stepped in front of him. "Pardon me, sir," he said in a low, firm voice, "if you would explain." "Brentley," Steven said, and stepped up beside Marcus. "Please clear the

doorway." "Steven," Price said. "Explain yourself." Steven opened his mouth, but Marcus spoke. "I am Marcus MacGregor, the Marquess of Ashlund, and this"—he nodded to the woman in his arms—"is my wife, the Marchioness of Ashlund." An instant of stunned silence passed, then the man standing closest said, "I

assume you have proof of this claim?" "My brother-in-law has the wedding certificate." Marcus motioned with a nod of his head in Steven's direction. Steven retrieved the certificate from the front pocket of his great coat and handed it to Brentley. The older man took the paper while reaching into his pocket and pulling out a pair of

spectacles. He wrapped the wires of the spectacles around his ears, then read the certificate. "The ceremony was officiated by a Father Whyte of Badachro, Scotland," he said. "I know nothing of that person or place," one of the other men said. Brentley looked at Marcus. "Forgive me, sir, but you will understand this"—he

indicated the wedding certificate with a small shake —"isn't enough." "Steven," Marcus said, "take the ring from my breast pocket." Steven pulled back Marcus's coat and reached inside the pocket. He retrieved the ring Robert had given Elise and handed it to Brentley. "The inscription," Steven said. "Read it. Brentley took a step

closer to the door, holding the ring out so that the light from the hallway glinted off it. He squinted, reading aloud, "For all eternity." He looked questioningly at Steven. "That is the ring Robert gave Elise on their wedding day." From the corner of his eye, Marcus saw Price's mouth thin. Another of the board members cleared his throat.

"What sort of proof is that?" Brentley looked from his companion back to Steven. "You are sure?" "Absolutely," Steven replied. Brentley whipped his glasses off and faced Price. "What do you make of this, Price?" Price stepped up to them and extended his hand. "May I see the ring?" Brentley placed it on

Price's open palm. Ardsley stepped into the doorway and examined the ring. An instant later, he turned his gaze onto Marcus. "It looks very much like the ring Robert gave Elise." He handed the ring to Steven. "It could be a forgery," Brentley said. "Possibly," Price agreed, then said to Marcus, "Have you other proof of your claims?"

"The night Elise was washed overboard, her husband tried to strangle her. She was forced—" "That is common knowledge," Price interrupted. Satisfaction surged through Marcus. So this was to be the line Price would not have him cross. "True," he agreed, "but there are details which wouldn't have been common knowledge."

Price inclined his head. "Gentlemen," he looked around the room, "in the interest of privacy, perhaps it would be best if we reconvened in my study." The men gave a general nod of agreement. Price grasped the servant's bell hanging near the door and tugged. A moment later, Simons appeared in the doorway. "Simons, show my guests

to the study." "Indeed, sir," Simons replied. "If you would, gentlemen." He bowed. "I cannot leave Elise," Marcus said. The men hesitated, and Price said, "Gentlemen, if you will allow me, I will reassure Lord Ashlund that Elise will be well tended in his absence. Go with Simons. We'll be along directly." The men filed out of the

room until only Steven, Marcus, and Price remained. Price closed the door, then faced Marcus. "What do you want?" "My wife," Marcus said, and turned to carry the woman impersonating Elise back to the bed. He gently lay her on the mattress, straightened the covers about her neck, then faced Price. "And the stocks?" Price asked.

"Yours, once you deliver her to me." "They are mine now." "All assets will be frozen for a minimum of three months," Steven interjected. "That is the time it will take to confirm the Marquess's claim. And"—he added with a slight smile—"that could easily turn into six months. The board will wish to be extremely thorough in this matter. In the end, they will

be mine." "It's a shame Robert's aim wasn't better," Price commented. "Be that as it may," Steven replied evenly. "You have until tomorrow evening to deliver Elise to the Josephine," Marcus said. "The ship is docked in Boston Harbor and awaits our arrival before departing for England." "I have a signed affidavit

giving me Elise's stocks," Price said. "I care nothing for your money," Marcus said. "Return her to me, and I will not contest the documents." Price looked at Steven. "My sister's life is worth the shares I gave her." Price returned his attention to Marcus. "You will dine with me tomorrow evening." "An early supper. I have

a friend aboard the Josephine. He knows Elise and will send me word once she arrives." "And what about this puppy?" Price motioned to Steven. Marcus looked at Steven. "I, too, will be waiting at the Josephine." His expression hardened. "I wish to see my sister before she returns to Scotland." Price looked at Marcus. "You will sail on the

Josephine?" "Aye." "And you"—he turned again to Steven—"will remain here to deal with me." Steven didn't reply, and Price said, "Let us adjourn to the library and explain how poor Elise was so out of her head she forgot her husband in Scotland. You can assure them you have no interest in her fortune." "This woman leaves with

us tonight," Marcus said. For the second time that evening, Price showed a flicker of emotion. "A woman in her condition shouldn't to be moved." Marcus shook his head. "I will not arrive tomorrow evening to find my sick wife dead." "It's unlikely she will die. The only real thing wrong with her is malnutrition. That and the laudanum."

"Is malnutrition the only thing wrong with Elise?" "Elise is quite well." "Alive and well?" Marcus pressed, maintaining a firm grip on his fury. "Very much alive." "Then let us speak with your guests. Steven will remain here." "Of course," Price said, and opened the door for Marcus.

At nine o'clock that night, Marcus settled the woman impersonating his wife into the carriage, then assisted the maid, who would tend to her on the short ride to the Josephine, into the carriage. He strode to his horse and took the reins from Steven. They mounted, then urged their horses after the carriage. They remained silent until long after leaving the estate.

"He has no intention of allowing you to return to the Josephine tomorrow evening," Steven said in a low voice. "Aye," Marcus replied, and lapsed back into silence. * * * * Elise started awake, her eyesight finding and fixing on the sliver of light that jabbed beneath her door into the darkness of her cell. The stench of sweat, urine, and

blood met her nostrils. Hers, she realized with a clarity she hadn't experienced in weeks. Memories washed over her in a tidal wave. Scotland. The carriage careening down the road. Shots fired. Price. Price was in Scotland! No—he had been in Scotland—he—they —were now in America. He had brought her back to Boston. He waylaid her coach. She squeezed her eyes

shut. Six—seven men murdered in cold blood. And Mary—the memory of the girl's pleas for mercy as Price forced her into the carriage left Elise as cold now as they had then. Mary was the informer Marcus sought. Marcus. Elise sobbed. He believed her dead. She ceased crying. She was dead. She had signed her death warrant when she signed over her shares in Landen

Shipping. But the death of the unborn child he had used to coerce her now stirred something within her. The child is dead! she mentally screamed. Price has no more hold over you. He wanted her dead. Yet, his affirmation, when she demanded to know if he knew Robert had been poisoning Amelia, had shaken her in a way she hadn't thought possible. He had looked out

through those expressionless eyes and answered "Of course" in that cool voice her mother had so loved. The stirring flared into anger, and with anger came the realization her mind was free. No one had come the previous night to administer another dose of laudanum. She hesitated. Was this the next day? Perhaps two, three, or five days had passed. She couldn't know. But she could

think, could find out. Was she strong enough to leave this place? Her heart skipped a beat. Was she strong enough to even rise from this putrid pallet? Elise took a deep breath, then pushed up to a sitting position. Her pulse raced. The movement had been effortless. Could she—she shoved to her feet. She tripped, one foot having landed on the floor, the other

on the pallet, and she stumbled sideways, slamming into the wall. She slid to the floor, head swimming. "Too fast," she told herself between the gasps for breath she prayed was fear and not lasting effects of the laudanum. Her pulse slowed and she, at last, rose. Her head remained clear, despite the lurch of her stomach with the first step. She halted, waited a

moment, then, eyes fixed on the light, she edged forward until her fingers touched the cold steel of the door. * * * * Marcus closed the door to Miss Lisa Poteck's cabin aboard the Josephine, then followed the narrow corridor to the captain's quarters. With a perfunctory knock, he entered. Captain Garret sat at a large table, studying navigation maps that covered

the large oak surface. He looked up as Marcus approached. "How is Miss Poteck?" he asked in a refined English accent. Marcus seated himself opposite him. "She will be fit enough for the meeting. All is in readiness?" "It is, Lord Ashlund." A loud knock sounded at the door and Steven entered. Marcus came to his feet

when he recognized the man behind Steven as one of those hired to watch Danvers Hospital. "Ardsley has gone to Danvers," Steven said. "When?" The man answered, "I rode the moment he arrived. Less than two hours ago." Adrenaline coursed through Marcus. Steven was already consulting his pocket watch.

"It is twenty-five past one." He stuffed the watch back into its pocket. "Price did just as you said he would." "Aye, lad. He had no choice." Marcus turned to the messenger. "Wait for me on deck." The man nodded, then left. Marcus waited for the door to shut, then faced Steven. "The board members are ready?"

"They're waiting at a nearby tavern." He shook his head in obvious disbelief. "I thought you were wrong. Had I gone to Danvers as I wanted…" His brother-in-law had no notion of the will it had taken Marcus to remain idle on the Josephine. He, too, wanted nothing more than to catch Price Ardsley on the road to Danvers, but he couldn't chance Elise being

hurt in the gunfight. Justin would follow her. If worse came to worst, he would attack and take Elise from Price. "Ardsley had to be sure you and I were aboard the Josephine," Marcus said. "You can be sure he knows of our continued presence here." Marcus faced the captain. "Captain Garret, please have your doctor prepare Miss Poteck."

"As you say," Garret replied crisply. Marcus started for the door, Steven on his heels. Once in the corridor, Steven closed the door and called out to Marcus. He halted. "Did you inform your cousin of your plan not to sail back to Scotland with Elise?" "Instructions await him on the ship they are to sail on," Marcus replied. "He will not be pleased.

As for Elise—" "Elise will be well looked after. Justin knows what he's about." "And if you don't make your ship?" "I will." * * * * Elise's hand shook as she pressed a palm against the iron door. She pushed gently. The door swung open. A cry of surprise rose in her throat before she could stifle the

sound. Why was her door unlocked? They believed she was still in a stupor! She stepped as far as the doorway and peeked into the hall. The long corridor was empty. She stepped from the room and stopped two paces into the hallway. A single light lit the hallway near where she stood. Doors lined both sides of the corridor. She looked left, then right. Both directions turned into what

seemed yet another hallway. Which way was out? Out— out to where? Where was she going? Marcus. No. She would not endanger him. Blood roared through her veins; her head pounded. Panic rose. Which way? Choose a way, any way! She started forward. Her courage grew with each infinitesimal step forward. Near the end of the hallway, the tip of a banister extended out to

where the hallway turned left. Stairs. A scream shattered the silence. Elise bit back a shout and hugged the wall. Another cry, fainter this time but close, rent the air again. She peered in the direction she had been moving. A door stood three feet from her. She edged toward the room. The door stood slightly ajar and she peered inside. "No!" a woman wailed in

a low voice. "Please, Ramsey, not tonight, not tonight." Her voice trailed off repeating the plea. Elise jammed her eyes shut. Ramsey, the monster who had been watching her. "No," the woman cried again. Elise entered the room. "Shhh," she said. The huddled form in the far corner jerked upright. "Who's there?" the woman

said. "Sara? You're not Sara." "No," Elise soothed. She stopped near the woman and knelt. The woman shrank back. "Ramsey sent you. He wants to know if my monthly flux has passed. Tell him no! It will never pass. Tell him—" "No," Elise whispered. "Ramsey did not send me." "Liar," the woman hissed. She jabbed a finger at Elise and Elise scrambled to

her feet. The woman began weeping. "Never," she repeated. "My flux will never pass. I won't spread my legs for him again." She fell into a fit of loud wails. Elise backed up. The poor soul was mad. Tears streamed down Elise's face. Ramsey. She couldn't remember his face—Price had drugged her before bringing her to the sanitarium —but she could imagine all

too easily what he was like. How many other women had he abused? She turned and fled the room. Ignoring the feel of the stiff, filthy fabric, she ran toward the stairs. Her stomach roiled. Still she ran. A noise sounded behind her. She jerked her head around to glance over her shoulder but saw nothing. Another inmate of the many rooms? She faced forward again,

slamming into what, at first, felt like a stone wall. She recognized the fingers of steel that gripped her shoulders even before she looked up into the face of Ramsey.

Chapter Twenty-One "Release me!" Elise shouted. She thrashed wildly and Ramsey's grip on her shoulders turned painful. "Well, now," he said, his Irish brogue sharpened with raucous laughter, "what have we here?" "Let me go!" She

struggled harder, despite the pain of his beefy fingers digging still deeper into her skin. "My husband—" she began, but he cut her off with more foul laughter. "Your husband committed you, my bonnie girl. So don't bother threatening revenge." "Price Ardsley is not my husband." "Don't know the man's name. Don't care. He put you

here and plainly doesn't plan on you ever seeing the light of day." Ramsey yanked her to him and, with one hand, stroked her hair. "That leaves you and I to sport, eh?" Elise raised a foot and stomped on the top of his boot. He yelped and leapt back. She whirled and lunged forward. "Bloody fool wench!" He seized her from behind and flung her against

the wall. Ramsey crashed into her back, knocking the breath from her. He snaked a hand around her waist. Elise wedged her hands between herself and the wall and clawed at his fingers. "Damn—" he hissed, pulling his hand free. He grabbed her arms and yanked them back. Her arms felt as though they would tear from their sockets as he crushed her to the wall.

"You're a plucky one," he wheezed in her ear. "Most wenches here are too daft to even know their names. Takes all the fun out of the play." He pinned her arms between their bodies with one hand, then rammed the fingers of his free hand into her hair. Elise jerked her head aside, but he mashed her cheek against the wall. "You haven't had a bath

since coming here, but Sara kept you cleaned up where it counts." He thrust his hips against her. Elise's stomach churned, more at the knowledge of the shared intimacy when Sara had tended to her than the feel of his erection digging into the cleft of her buttocks. "Not a pretty sight," he went on. "Until she cleaned you up, that is. Then," he roughly ground himself

against her, "I knew you and I would be spending time together. I was waiting for the right time." He laughed again. "You decided you wanted me now, eh?" She shoved hard against the wall in an attempt to thrust his body away from hers, but he slammed back all the more brutally, groaning when their bodies jammed together. His fingers tightened in her hair and she

cried out in pain. "Aye, my girl," he rasped. "Scream. In this place, no one will care, and I like it." He released her hair and forced his hand into the small of her back where his belt had been digging into her flesh. His belt jingled and, for the first time, Elise felt loathing and fear vie in earnest with outrage. Her body trembled and her knees weakened. She

twisted, but he yanked back on her arms, and she felt her arms begin to separate from their sockets. His belt and trousers hit the floor with the buckle landing with a dull clank. He grabbed her skirts and yanked them up. Elise kicked backwards with the heel of her foot, hitting the hard bone of his shin. He grunted, but only spread his legs and thrust his hips into her.

"I will not be another of your victims!" she shouted. She grit her teeth and jerked her head backwards. The back of her head struck Ramsey's hard skull. He shrieked, yanking hard on her arms as he fell back a pace. Pain reverberated through her head. Elise bit her lip to halt the pain as he unexpectedly leapt back from her. Iron fingers seized her arm and she barely registered the

difference in this and Ramsey's hold as she was spun her around. Elise gasped. Price Ardsley stared down at her. * * * * Two hours after the messenger arrived informing Marcus that Price had arrived at Danvers, a messenger arrived at the Josephine directing Marcus to come immediately to Price

Ardsley's home. Half an hour later, Marcus was shown into his private study. A fire crackled in the hearth and Price sat behind the mahogany desk he had occupied when they had explained Elise's situation to Landen Shipping's board of directors. A tumbler of whiskey sat before Price. How would this man explain Elise's situation when the board members appeared here

later this morning? "Please," Price motioned to the chair in front of the desk, "have a seat." Marcus sat. "Would you like a drink?" Price asked, straightening. "Nay." Price leaned back. "Word will arrive any moment that Elise has been safely deposited aboard the Josephine."

"You had until this evening. Why bring her so early?" "I thought her speedy return would please you." "Her not being abducted would have pleased me." "Rest assured she is safe. So long as she—you both— remain in Scotland. You've said nothing about the boy." Price sipped his drink. "He is no threat to you." "He won't take lightly

that I kept his sister prisoner." "I have convinced him to accompany us to Scotland," Marcus gave the planned answer. Price seemed to contemplate this. "The longer the stay, the better." "Aye," Marcus agreed. The sound of boots on carpeted floor were heard, and Price said, "That would be our young friend now." As if on cue, the door

opened and Steven entered. "Elise is safely on the Josephine." "She is well?" Marcus asked with as much calm as he could exert. Steven turned his glare to Price. "She has a dislocated shoulder and looks as if she hasn't bathed since her abduction." Marcus jerked his gaze back to Price and barely managed to check the

compulsion to lunge across the desk. "Your brother-in-law will now take a message to the captain that he is to set sail before the hour is up," Price said. "I will not leave," Steven shot back. "Aye, you will." Marcus prayed the boy wouldn't pull the pistol he'd noticed stuffed into his waistband. "You have pen and paper?"

Price produced paper from a desk drawer and laid it before Marcus as he scooted the quill, sitting at his left, up alongside the paper. Marcus wrote the note instructing the Josephine to set sail immediately, then folded the missive and extended it toward Steven. "Anyone can deliver this," Steven protested. Marcus shook his head. "You take it, lad, and be on

the ship when she sails." This Marcus had not discussed with Steven, for the boy would not have agreed. Chances were, he wouldn't obey now. Steven looked from Marcus to Price, then snatched the note from Marcus's grasp. He settled his gaze on Price. "We aren't finished." Price nodded with a sigh and Steven faced Marcus.

"You shouldn't have come here." "Take care of Elise," Marcus said. "That I will," he said, and left. Marcus focused on Price. "My father, the Duke of Ashlund, will be waiting for the Josephine when she arrives. If anything happens to Elise or Steven, if any attempts are made to harm either of them, someone will

set sail from Scotland before I step onto Scottish soil." "I have no intention of harming Elise." Aye, neither will you harm her brother, Marcus silently added. "How long am I to wait here?" Marcus asked. "Until word arrives that the Josephine is well out of Boston Harbor. I estimate two hours." "A guard stands outside

this door?" Price gave a single nod. "I would have preferred to wait at one of the harbor taverns," Marcus said, not feeling the slightest twinge of guilt at the lie. He had planned all along to be here when the men of Landen Shipping arrived on Ardsley's door about the same time the Josephine left Boston Harbor. "Shall I have refreshments served?" Price

asked. "Nay," Marcus replied. "I dine only with friends." Nearly two hours of silence later, there came a quick knock on the library door. Price looked toward the door as it opened and Simons entered. "Sir," the butler said out of breath, "Mister Brentley and the other gentlemen from Landen Shipping are downstairs. They are

demanding to see you—" A pounding of footsteps in the hallway intruded into Simon's speech. "There they are, sir. I feared they would not wait." Brentley appeared in the doorway. The rest of Landen Shipping's board of directors piled up behind him. Brentley stepped inside the room and looked at Marcus, who rose. "We have just come from the Josephine," Brentley said. "The Josephine?" Price

asked evenly. "Yes," Brentley replied, and the room broke out into a babble of voices. "Gentlemen," he shouted. "Gentlemen, please!" Another figure appeared behind the men. The din quieted as Steven pushed past them and halted beside Marcus. "You should have sailed on the Josephine," Marcus said.

"As should you have," Steven replied. "Price," Brentley said, "we have just spoken with Miss Poteck and Elise." "Miss Poteck?" Price said as if he had never heard the name in his life. "Don't," Brentley cut in, his quiet voice harsh. He produced two folded pieces of paper from his front coat pocket. He unfolded them and held up one. "This is a signed

affidavit from Miss Poteck, explaining in detail how you paid her to impersonate Elise Kingston." Price frowned, but Brentley went on. "This," he lifted the other document, "is Elise's statement." He continued in a half strangled voice, "She swears you kidnapped her in Scotland and brought her to Boston against her will, then incarcerated her in Danvers Hospital." Marcus's heart

raced as if hearing this for the first time. Brentley lowered the papers. "If I had been given this information without the benefit of witnesses, I would put a bullet between your eyes." A murmur circulated through the men. Surprise flickered across Price's impassive face. Marcus had the sudden urge to slip the knife from his boot and throw it at him. However, the

mental image of Price's fine white shirt darkening with his blood dissipated when Brentley said, "As it is, I will have to satisfy myself with the punishment allowed by the law. As you may know, Judge Quinley and I are well acquainted. I will see to it he takes a personal interest in this case. I have always known you were a scoundrel, but this"—Brentley faltered —"this goes beyond anything

I could have imagined." He shook his head, his blue eyes clouded with disbelief. "The things Elise claims in this document…" He paused and held Price's gaze. "It's a wonder the girl survived." He looked at Marcus. "You have my deepest sympathies, Lord Ashlund." Marcus's gut twisted. What more was wrong with Elise than Steven had

admitted? What had Brentley seen that the younger man hadn't? Marcus gave a single nod and, once again, everyone began talking. He glanced at Ardsley. Price met his gaze with the same unruffled expression he always wore. A chill passed through Marcus. He turned and left the room. A moment later, Marcus and Steven stepped from the mansion out onto the front

steps. Marcus looked from the boy who stood at the bottom of the stairs holding his and Steven's horses across the trees surrounding the mansion to the sky that hinted at dawn. He and Steven strode down the steps, mounted their horses and urged them into a walk. They rode in silence until passing from the gates. "Elise is safely sailed on the Surrey?" Marcus asked.

"Justin smuggled her off the Josephine. An easy feat with the Surrey docked only two slips down. I watched the ship sail. No one suspected a thing, including Brentley and the others." Marcus allowed the first breath of relief since Elise had gone missing. Autumn was just beginning. The journey would be an easy one. "Steven," he said in a quiet voice, "is she truly

well?" "As I said, her shoulder is dislocated and she hasn't bathed since leaving Scotland." "Otherwise?" Steven hesitated, then said, "In a way, she's the Elise I knew; in a way, she isn't." He paused. "She has passed through fire since I last saw her, but losing Amelia changed her, and there is her marriage to you."

"We were wed but a night when Price took her." Steven blew out a breath. "You didn't mention that." Marcus looked at him. "She is my wife. It doesn't matter whether for a day or a year." "I suppose not." Another moment of silence passed and Steven said, "She had no idea you were coming for her." Marcus jerked his gaze onto Steven.

"I believe she had hoped you wouldn't come." "Bloody hell," Marcus burst out. "Why?" "It's easy to see she lied to you." "She didn't tell me about Ardsley." "Neither did she tell you she shot Robert." "Nay," Marcus replied. "She saved my life. You think she knew about the bounty on her head?"

"How could—" Marcus stopped, remembering the night at Michael's when she laid the onion before Michael after removing his copy of the Sunday Times—the copy Erin had brought. Everyone in Brahan Seer knew how Michael loved reading the newspaper. Anyone passing through Edinburgh brought a copy at least as far as the Glaistig Uain. From there, the copy,

eventually, made its way to Michael. Elise lived at Brahan Seer for four months before Marcus returned. All that time she had been going to the cottage and searching the paper for news. By God, on his return from London the last time, he had brought a copy of the paper. It still sat on his desk. "Why not simply ask to have the paper brought to Brahan Seer?" Marcus

whispered. "What?" Steven asked. "I thought I had never met a woman more stubborn." "And something has altered your assessment?" Marcus smiled, but the smile faded as quickly as it appeared. He looked past the trees that lined the road up to the sky. The ship he was to sail on awaited him. Three more weeks would pass before he got his answers. His

gut tightened another notch. He had enough answers to last a lifetime. Elise hadn't wanted him to come for her. Did he need more? "She asked about you," Steven said. "What?" Marcus looked at him, startled. "We had no time for discussion." Steven gave a mirthless laugh. "Seems that's how it has been with us for some time. Had I taken more

time—never mind. We had a devil of a time convincing her to get on the ship this morning. She didn't want to leave without you." Relief mingled with frustration. "By God," Marcus muttered. Steven laughed in earnest this time. "Surely, you expected no less." "I expect her to have some common sense." "What is common sense,

Ashlund? Well, never mind. She's made a mess of things and knows it—" A shot rang out. A bullet whizzed past Marcus's ear. His horse lunged forward. Marcus yanked on the reins, following Steven, who already galloped for the cover of trees. Another shot resounded and Marcus saw wood splinter in the tree he sped past. He pulled his horse

up alongside the place Steven had leapt from his horse. "Price," Steven hissed. He yanked the pistol from his waistband and crept toward the edge of the trees. Marcus jumped from his horse and started after him. Steven halted just before the trees gave way to the road, then darted from the cover of the forest. "Steven!" Marcus shouted, and raced after him.

Marcus's heart hammered against his chest. He dove into the trees across the road and came to a skidding halt at seeing Steven, pistol raised and aimed at Kiernan. "Son-of-a-bitch!" Steven yelled, and squeezed back on the trigger.

Chapter Twenty-Two Marcus paused on the deck of the Dauntless, one foot on the gangplank, and scanned the Edinburgh dock. It was not quite noon, yet storm clouds filled the sky, casting dark shadows reminiscent of nightfall. The docks teemed with activity. Bales of dry goods and crates

of supplies lay stacked on the boardwalk. Sailors and dock workers hurried to load them onto ships before the rains fell. Marcus spotted Erin near a crowd of sailors. Erin caught his gaze, and Marcus nodded, then started forward. He avoided a man carrying a bag of provisions on his shoulder and stepped onto the dock. For the thousandth time, Marcus swore an oath to go to the

grave before setting foot on another ship bound for America. He had been forced to make too many hard choices these last three months—more than enough to last a lifetime. Elise might never forgive some of the choices. He stopped before Erin, who was looking past him. "What is it?" Marcus demanded. "I don't see Kiernan."

Marcus's throat tightened. "Kiernan—" "Father!" He turned at hearing his son call. The boy was hurrying down the gangplank. He dodged his way through the people and passing hackneys before reaching Marcus. "Kiernan," Erin said with obvious relief. "Your grandfather sends word you are to come immediately—"

"Kiernan will be going straight to London," Marcus said. "I will deal with my father." Marcus looked pointedly at Kiernan. "Yes, Father. Directly to London." "Do not return to Brahan Seer until I send for you." "That's rather unreason —" "You have no say in the matter," Marcus cut him off. Kiernan sighed. "As you

say, Father." "If I hear you have left London before I give permission to do so, I'll come for you myself." "So you have said," Kiernan replied. "Then you comprehend the situation." "I do." Marcus gave him a curt nod. "I assume you can make your way from here?" "Of course."

The sailors who stood nearby suddenly let up a cheer and several among their ranks jostled Marcus and Kiernan. Marcus motioned Kiernan and Erin to follow. He strode several paces from them, then stopped and faced the two young men. "It's early yet," he said to Kiernan, "you can cover at least a third of the journey if you start immediately." Marcus looked at Erin. "You

brought three horses?" "Aye. They are at the Bliney tavern." "Good. Kiernan, you may have lunch before leaving. Erin and I will begin straightaway for Brahan Seer." Marcus started in the direction of the tavern but stopped when Erin said, "Laird." He turned. Neither of the young men had moved. "What is it?" "Lady Ashlund is not at

Brahan Seer." "Not at—where the bloody hell is she?" "Ashlund." Marcus frowned. "Is something amiss at Brahan Seer?" "Nay," Erin quickly assured him. "She simply refused to go there." "Has my father seen her?" "He is at Ashlund." Erin reached into his

pocket and produced a note. Marcus recognized the paper his father used on the rare occasions he wrote missives. He took the letter, tore open the seal, and read. Marcus, Elise is safely in Ashlund. When she refused to come to Brahan Seer, I left for Ashlund. She gave me your letter. I read it, then

read it to her, but only after she confessed to me what she says is her entire story. It seems she knew nothing of your travels in America. I believe the danger you faced genuinely upset her. That is only right. I thought it better not to force her to return to Brahan Seer, so we await you in Ashlund. Bring my grandson with

you. Cameron Ashlund lay a three-hour hard ride away. He would see Elise before the evening meal. Three hours later, Marcus and Erin rode into the stables at Ashlund. The stables were empty when they arrived, so Marcus left Erin to

attend his horse and hurried to the mansion. His butler met him. "Welcome home, Lord Ashlund," Nelson cried. "Nelson." Marcus smiled. "Where will I find my father?" "He is in the library, I believe." "And my wife?" Nelson looked thoughtful. "She planned to go to the solarium."

Marcus didn't move. "Was there something else, Lord Ashlund?" Nelson asked. "Nay," Marcus replied, and strode down the hall toward the solarium. Marcus jerked open the solarium door with unexpected violence. He paused, startled at the intensity of feeling, then, regaining his composure, stepped inside and closed the

door softly behind him. He had a clear view of the aisle ahead of him and Elise wasn't in sight. He started forward, scanning the foliage and flowers that separated the aisle he walked down from the other aisle. Suddenly, he caught sight of her through the calanthe rosea. She stood gazing out the window, her back to him. The small lavender orchids snaked up their fragile vines, framing

her body between their branches. He halted. The lush hair that hung loosely about her shoulders didn't hide the thinness of those shoulders and arms. He detected a difference in her stance. Gone was the lofty air. In its place was a stronger sense of being in the here and now. Steven was right; she was the same yet wasn't. Marcus continued

forward. When he reached the end of the aisle, Elise turned as if she heard his approach. The faint smile on her face snapped into a gasp as their gazes met. She gave a cry and collapsed onto the stone bench beside her. Her hand flew to cover her heart and her wide eyes remained fixed on him. He halted a few feet from her. He discerned dark smudges beneath her eyes— eyes that weren't the clear

brown he remembered. They wore a haunted look, one that perhaps mirrored his own. No joy shone in her expression. That, too, he knew, mirrored his own. Still, she was beautiful. Damn her—damn her beauty. During the month-long trip to America he had remembered every lovely line of her face, the soft timbre of her voice and sweet gestures that had enchanted him so.

Upon arriving in Boston, his thoughts had been consumed with finding her and bringing her safely home. Those months had distanced him from the goddess she had become in his mind and she had become the woman who stood before him now—more flesh and blood than angel. As if reading his mind, she said, "I told you that you couldn't know." "I could have, had you

told me." Elise dropped her gaze. "So easy to say now. I couldn't be sure—there was no time—" "How much time would have been enough, Elise?" She looked at him and he saw the tears pooling in her eyes. The sadness in her expression deepened. "You're right." She turned so that her profile was barely visible to

him and he realized she fought tears. "I cannot believe you're here," she said in a whisper. "Cannot believe I am here. You should have left me there. Were you hurt?" "Look at me and see for yourself." Her head jerked up and he locked her gaze. "Do I look well?" "I—" "Do I resemble a man who has lived the past three months in wedded bliss?"

"I know I endangered you," she replied. "And Kiernan." She blanched. "Yes, Kiernan—and the others. I didn't intend on returning. I wouldn't have done that to you." "Wouldn't have done that to me?" he thundered. "Instead, you would have left me in misery the remainder of my days?" "If I am here, you are in

misery; if I am gone, you are in misery." "Misery of your making." Elise shot to her feet. "I am aware of my mistakes. I've had plenty of time to recount them." "Aye," he replied. "And did you recount the biggest mistake of all?" Her eyes blazed with a bravado he believed bordered on hysteria. "Which biggest

mistake would that be, Marcus MacGregor?" "Leaving me before I had the chance to really love you —and be loved by you." She faltered as if she would crumple back onto the stone bench. His hands worked into fists at his sides. "We are finished with lies. God knows, I'm as guilty as you. I knew you feared something. I have been a fool." He stared

at her astonished face. "I won't make you a prisoner, but I must know you will use good sense in the future. Do you understand that, as my wife, you cannot go about like a peasant's wife?" "I used good sense when I left Whycham House," she retorted. "Aye?" He clenched his fists tighter. "You can say that when you knew Ardsley had a bounty on your head?

You didn't tell me, the one man who could have—would have—protected you. You married me but didn't trust me. I told you I would not fail you." Elise burst into tears and covered her face with her hands. "Surely, you expected no less?" he pressed. This, Marcus suddenly realized, was to be his revenge. She would have to

live the rest of her life with him loving her, no matter her faults. Mayhap she would love him in return, despite his faults. Love him, aye. Forgive what had happened in Boston… what had happened to Steven? Perhaps not. She reseated herself. Marcus sat beside her. He placed a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened, but he recognized the reaction as fear not loathing.

"I must know what happened," he said. Then we shall see what you think of my sins. He waited. Her sobs at last subsided into a deep sigh. She faced him but avoided his gaze. "I left Whycahm Hall. Mary told me—" Her gaze abruptly jerked to meet his. "Oh, Marcus," she cried in a voice so full of sadness it startled him, "Mary—" She choked.

"Aye," he said quickly. "I know." "No! Mary was the spy. She was giving the Campbells information." "What?" Blood pounded through his veins, the rushing sound in his head making it hard to think. "Yes," Elise went on hurriedly. "She argued with Price. I heard enough to understand she had been passing information to the

Campbells. That's why they were on MacGregor land. I didn't believe you when you said their presence had something to do with me. I am at fault, and I don't deserve to be here, but I swear, I wouldn't have left Whycham house if not for her urging." "What happened?" Marcus demanded. "After Sophie showed us to the guest chambers in

Whycham House, Mary told me about Ashlund and how the stables were too close to the main house. I remembered Winnie telling me of her uncle who died of terrible burns, and Mary was so vivid in her descriptions of Ashlund—" "Mary had never been to Ashlund," Marcus cut in savagely. The anguish in Elise's eyes nearly did him in. "How

could I know?" Aye, how could she know? "I was wrong not to understand how little of us you understood," he murmured. "You can't blame yourself, that is—" Marcus leapt to his feet. "You are ignorant of a great many things here, Elise. Don't make the same mistake you made before." She blinked and he knew

he'd hurt her, but he wouldn't allow her ignorance to go unchecked this time. "Mary has received her just rewards. Forget her. What happened next?" "About forty-five minutes after we left Whycham House, we were accosted by highwaymen—or I thought they were highwaymen." Elise shuddered with such obvious fear Marcus clenched his

hands at his sides to keep from slamming a fist through the solarium's glass wall. "I thought they were simple highwaymen so threw my wedding band out the window of the carriage." She looked at Marcus. "I am sorry. Sophie told me the emerald was in your family for centuries, but I meant to give you a clue." So, Sara McPhee hadn't taken the ring. "You did

right," he said. Gratitude flickered across her features, then she went on. "When we reached the point where they were gaining on us, more men appeared from within the trees and intercepted us." Tears streamed down her cheeks. "Your men fought valiantly. Price shot Richard and Taylor." Two of the men he had planned on hunting down and

killing. "They were good men." "Price pulled me from the carriage. He left Mary inside. The men…" Elise faltered. "Three—no—four of them, they were beaten half senseless, then the carriage was run off the cliff." Marcus's mind raced. The woman who he thought was Elise must have been put in the carriage after it crashed into the water. What poor

soul had Ardsley snatched from her life to take Elise's place? "The other man," Elise rushed on, "I don't remember his name." She turned an anguished look on him. "I should remember his name." "What happened to him?" "I don't know. Price forced laudanum down my throat. I awoke aboard a ship. He made threats. I didn't fear

his threats against me, but…" "He threatened me?" Marcus asked quietly. "Yes. But…" she halted and he saw the agony on her face. "Kiernan?" he pressed. "Not him…" Her gaze dropped again and she said in a whisper, "Your other child." "My other—" Marcus fell back a pace, feeling as though he had collided headlong with a horse racing

toward him at breakneck speed. "What are you saying?" Elise was shaking. "I-I couldn't be sure so early on. I had missed my monthly flux by only a week. When Price told me he knew, I was so startled that he instantly knew." Marcus grasped Elise by the shoulders. "You are with child?" She slumped in his grasp

and began crying so hard that Marcus was shaken to the core. "Elise," he insisted with more gentleness. "The laudanum." She forced back the tears. "They fed me laudanum every day —every hour, it seemed." She appeared to deflate even more. "I lost the child." Hot rage flashed in a thick lightning bolt of red across his vision. He had sat

across from Ardsley, stared into his eyes, and all along the bastard had known he was responsible for the loss of the child—my child. Yet the man had returned his stare and smiled. "If I faced Ardsley now —" Marcus cut off the statement at seeing the sudden terror on Elise's face, but her expression said she understood all too well the unfinished words. Nothing

could stop me from killing him—nothing will stop me from killing him. The oath never to set foot on American soil again rang in his head—a vow he would break. "This is why I didn't tell you the truth before our marriage." Tears streamed down her cheeks. "I am sorry. I realized too late you would st-stop at nothing to—" Marcus crushed her to him. Her body melted against

his and he prayed the action was the first in the weakening of the wall between them. * * * * Marcus shifted his gaze from the flames in the hearth of his London study to the Earl of Loudoun. The shocked expression on the earl's face when Marcus had laid the edict signed by King George on the desk was far better revenge than any Marcus could have devised.

"You drag me here for this rubbish?" Loudoun demanded. "By King George's command," Marcus replied evenly. "Ridiculous," he muttered. "Would you have preferred I continue to take matters into my own hands?" The look on Loudoun's face said he would have preferred just that.

"You do not seem to comprehend," Marcus said. "I tire of the fight. It will end one way or another. I can raze every keep between Brahan Seer and Castle Kalchurn. You cannot doubt I have the power." "You have the power," Loudoun snarled. "Yet you crave the war— a war you would most assuredly lose." "We have not yet lost,"

Loudoun snapped. "You have not won." "The Campbells are a force to be reckoned with." "How many more of your men must die to prove that?" The earl's mouth tightened. "You need not love a single MacGregor for us to live in peace, Loudoun." "We cannot live in peace." "King George disagrees."

Marcus motioned to the document. "You may keep this copy. Copies have been sent to every Campbell leader of consequence." Loudoun placed the tips of his fingers on the paper, then slowly slid it inch by inch into his hand until it formed a ball. He abruptly threw the paper at Marcus. Marcus didn't flinch when the paper rebounded from his chest and landed on the floor.

"A law purchased with Ashlund gold," Loudoun sneered. Marcus held his gaze. It mattered not if Loudoun knew that half the Ashlund fortune had been the final bargaining price that induced King George to sign the law condemning both Campbell and MacGregor to death for murdering any man—or woman—from the opposing clan. A sense of weary

finality washed over Marcus. Ashlund gold had bought MacGregor freedom, but it was the wisdom of one MacGregor so long ago that had illuminated this better path. "Bought with MacGregor blood," Marcus murmured, then louder, "and Campbell blood." The earl rose in one graceful motion. "Forgive me, Lord Ashlund, but I find it

likely King George will countermand this foolishness with the next turn of wind. He will find fault with you and your clan soon enough." Marcus gave a short laugh. "I wager King George would be just as pleased to find fault with you as he would with me." Loudoun's face reddened. He whirled and headed for the door. "Loudoun," Marcus

called. The earl halted and faced him. "I will make sure King George enforces this edict." Loudoun's lip curled upward. "Even if it takes every last crown in the Ashlund vault." "Even if it takes every last crown." Loudoun turned and left the room. Only a moment passed

before the library door opened again. Marcus turned from staring at the hearth and smiled as Elise's head appeared around the edge of the door. "I saw the earl leave," she said. "How did the meeting go?" "As to be expected." "Your son is waiting to speak with you." Marcus raised a brow. "Why not come himself?"

She laughed, opening the door another inch but didn't enter. "He tells me you forbade him so many things when he last saw you he fears forgetting one of your rules." "He has done as I instructed and we're in London, after all. He has free reign here." Marcus grimaced. "Nay, 'tis best you not repeat that." He regarded her. "Do you intend on standing in the doorway the

entire day?" Elise blushed and opened the door fully. She wore a simple gown of soft turquoise muslin. This was the most festive dress she had worn since returning from Boston. Perhaps she was truly beginning to forgive herself —and him. The softness in her eyes gave him hope. She remained in the doorway. "I'll send Kiernan to you."

"Will you return later?" Marcus asked as she started to turn. She looked at him. Her expression displayed some of the shy reticence he had seen during those first months at Brahan Seer "Perhaps," she replied with the hint of a smile, and turned to close the door. Marcus's gaze fell upon the mail he had received just before Loudoun arrived. A

letter from Boston lay at the bottom of the mix. "Elise," he called. She paused and looked over her shoulder. "Have Kiernan meet me in the stables in fifteen minutes. I have something to attend to and I planned a ride before lunch. He can accompany me." She nodded and left him alone. Marcus seated himself at

his desk and fished the Boston letter from the pile. He tore open the envelope and removed a letter, two folded newspaper clippings, and a sealed envelope addressed to Elise. He laid the two letters aside and unfolded one of the newspaper clippings. The title read: November 10, 1826 The Wellington

leaves Boston harbor carrying twenty-five American convicts headed for Australia. Marcus scanned the report, which listed the twenty-five men, their crimes, and sentences. He picked up the second clipping and unfolded it. The report read: November 10, 1826

BOSTON SHIPPING MOGUL MISSING Boston shipping mogul Price Ardsley, recently charged by the board of directors of Landen Shipping with fraud, has been missing since November 9. Landen Shipping contends that Ardsley fled the country to avoid prosecution.

The night Price Ardsley disappeared, Mister Jacob O'Riley reported witnessing two men outside Ardsley's estate accost a lone rider. A hood was thrown over the victim's head, then he was tied and thrown into the back of a carriage driven by his two assailants. William Sheldon of the Boston Police

Department interviewed Mister O'Riley but determined the event O'Riley witnessed is not connected with the disappearance of Price Ardsley. Anyone having information about Mister Ardsley's whereabouts is directed to report to Captain Sheldon immediately.

Marcus reread the first clipping. Price Ardsley in Australia. Heated satisfaction shot through him. So, he would not have to return to America after all. He refolded the two clippings, slipped them back in their envelope, then opened the letter and began reading. Ashlund, Six weeks have passed, and I am fully

recovered from the knife wound you inflicted. Had the doctors not insisted on the long convalescence, I would have caught the next ship bound for Scotland and run a dagger through your leg for good measure. I imagine you've read the newspaper clippings I sent. Strange things are afoot. I can't

say what lies ahead. Though I feel certain Price Ardsley won't be in a position to pay anyone to kill another man—or two men, as the case may be—again in the near future. See that Elise gets the letter addressed to her. Take care of her. Steven

Marcus refolded the letter and placed it in the envelope with the clippings. He took the letter addressed to Elise and went to her chambers. He sighed upon finding her room empty. Perhaps when he returned she would be here and… He left the letter on her dresser, then headed for the stables. Marcus heard the approach of footsteps even as Elise called out his name. He

exchanged a glance with Kiernan before turning from the stall where his son was saddling the stallion he had chosen to ride. As she hurried down the stable aisle toward them, Marcus's heart began to hammer out the heavy beat he had been experiencing more and more of late when in her presence. He noticed a letter —Steven's letter—tightly clutched in her hand. Elise had nearly reached

them when she lifted the letter. "This came today?" "Aye," Marcus replied. "Steven says he is fully recovered and out of the hospital." She stopped beside Marcus. Her expression clouded over. "Marcus, please, don't lie. How bad was the wound? Is it possible he truly is out of danger?" "I told you the truth, love," he said. Except for the fact Steven had turned at just

the wrong moment and the knife Marcus had thrown pierced the breastbone above the heart instead of his arm, as intended. Marcus shuddered inwardly as he always did when remembering how close he came to killing his wife's brother—and how close the brother came to killing his own son. "The wound wasn't life threatening." Or so the

doctors said two days later, when Steven began to show signs of recovering from the loss of blood. Marcus would have arrived back in Scotland a week earlier had he not tarried in Boston to assure himself the boy would recover. Kiernan stuck his head out the stall. Elise jumped, bumping into the small table against the wall. The brush and trimming scissors lying

on the table skittered across its surface. She quickly righted the table before they fell to the floor and looked at Kiernan. He flushed and Marcus knew his son was remembering his part in nearly getting killed, and nearly getting Steven killed. Marcus had also feared Elise wouldn't forgive Kiernan's part in her brother's brush with death. But she had, or so her warmth toward the boy

seemed to indicate. Would her warmth eventually extend to him? Would she forgive him? He wouldn't forget the sight of her pale face when he told her how Kiernan had saved him and Steven from Price's assassins, and how Steven had mistaken Kiernan for those assassins. When Marcus gave her the short letter Steven had written for her, she noted the shaky hand

the letter had been written in and wouldn't be completely consoled—until today. She blushed in response to Kiernan's embarrassment, and Marcus's body pulsed. He suddenly wished his son far away. Perhaps, if he and Elise were alone, she might allow him to make love to her. Marcus turned to Kiernan. "Mayhap you should go on without me." He looked at Elise. "Will you walk with

me?" She looked as though he had asked her to puzzle out the secret of the universe, and Marcus repressed a laugh. He extended his hand. She slipped her hand into his. He glimpsed a figure entering the door at the far end of the stables as they turned to leave. "Silas," he called after the new stable hand, "see to Alexis. I won't be taking him

out as planned." Marcus turned back to Elise and urged her toward the door at the far end of the stables. "Did Steven have much to say?" he asked. "He will return to duty in the Army." She hesitated. "He mentioned Price is missing." "He cannot harm us, Elise." Her gaze swung to his face. Her brow furrowed, then she nodded. They exited

the door and took a few steps down the path before she exclaimed, "The letter!" and broke free of his hold on her hand. "I must have dropped it." "Elise," he called, but she had already disappeared back into the stables. Bloody hell, at this rate it would be another six weeks before he got his wife back to the house, much less into his bed. He strode back inside the

stables. His heart jumped into his throat. In the instant before he broke into a run toward Elise, he took in the sight of Kiernan riding through the stable doors, Silas stepping from the stall next to the door, knife poised for throwing, and Elise grabbing the trimming scissors from the table. She hurled them toward Silas as she had thrown the sgian dubh that

day at Brahan Seer. The scissors hit their intended victim with deadly accuracy between the shoulder blades. Blood darkened the dirty shirt he wore. Silas faltered and turned, eyes wide with surprise. His expression contorted into rage. He roared and lunged toward her. Kiernan whirled his mount around to face the sudden commotion. His gaze met

Marcus's, then Kiernan shouted and dug his heels into his horse's ribs. The beast's nostrils flared as he dipped his head and charged. Marcus forced his legs to pump harder. Silas would still reach Elise before either of them did. She pivoted and grabbed the hoof pick hanging on the wall. The hair on Marcus's neck rose when Silas clutched at her. She swung the hoof

pick. Kiernan reached them as she slashed Silas's arm. The horse slammed into Silas and he was knocked forward and into Elise. He grabbed her, but Marcus leapt between them, shoving her behind him. The table crashed onto its side and Elise cried out. Marcus seized Silas's collar and pounded his fist into the man's jaw. "Father," Kiernan shouted as he leapt from his

horse. Marcus swung Silas around and sent him flying through the door of the stall. Silas banged into the wall and crumbled to the ground. Marcus whirled to face Elise. His breath came in quick, deep gasps—much like hers. She met his gaze, eyes blazing. He looked at Silas. The scissors had fallen from his back onto the straw-laden ground beside him. Marcus

looked back at Elise. "You never told me where you learned to throw a knife like that!" he shouted. She blinked as if yanked from a dream. "Steven—" her voice caught, but Marcus realized it was the last vestiges of fear—and rage. "Steven learned as a young boy. I-I always feared he would hurt himself, so I attended his practices." Elise yanked her skirt

above her ankles and strode to the stall opening. She stared at Silas, her hands clenched on the fistful of skirt she held. She pivoted as Marcus stepped up behind her and collided with him. He grasped her shoulders. She grabbed his arms as though to steady herself. "Will we ever be free of him?" In her eyes, Marcus saw the fear he had felt when he

saw Silas poised to murder his son. Marcus glanced around and spotted the bucket of water he was looking for several stalls down. He fetched it, then pushed past Elise and Kiernan and threw the water on the unconscious man. Silas awoke with a sputter. Marcus seized him by his collar and yanked him to his feet. "Who sent you?" Marcus shouted.

Silas cowed. "Tell me or I'll kill you here and now." "That woman." Silas cringed. "Woman?" Marcus gave him a hard shake. Silas went silent. "Kiernan! Give me your pistol." "No," Silas cried. Marcus lifted his fist for another blow. "Ross!" Silas shouted.

"Lady Ross."

Chapter Twenty-Three Elise stilled at the sound of Marcus's bedchamber door opening. She rose and stole through the closet which separated their two rooms, then knocked lightly on his door, and entered. He looked up from where he stood near the nightstand on the far side of the bed. Her heart lurched.

She had suspected he kept a mistress, but seeing him now, hair tousled, cravat missing, the top button of his shirt undone, there was no mistaking the fact he had just risen from another woman's bed. The mental picture of Marcus kissing the rise of her breasts, then taking her nipple into his mouth filled her vision. "Elise?" She snapped back to the

present. "I—" Her gaze caught on his hands—hands that had once touched her, had once—the urge to cry sprang up. No, she wouldn't cry. She had made her bed. She would live with the consequences. "I wondered how things went with Lady Ross's trial," she said. "Is it over?" Marcus reached around his back and pulled out the revolver stuffed into his

waistband. Where had the revolver lain when he made love to his mistress? "It is over," he replied. "She claims to know nothing of a plot to kill Kiernan." Marcus glanced at her. "I suspect she wanted you dead. Though she denies that as well. I don't know how, but it is clear she was in league with Ardsley. Margaret had no reason to kill Kiernan."

Elise started to ask how he could be so sure when he said, "She won't face prison." He gave a mirthless laugh. "England is not about to put one of her noblewomen in prison, even if she is Scottish. She is to go to America." Marcus's expression abruptly darkened. "Do you intend on standing in doorways the remainder of our marriage?" She blinked. "Or is it that you simply

find it too abhorrent to be in a room with me?" "I… no. I only thought —" "Thought what?" he demanded. "I didn't want to intrude. It is late—" "So it is." Marcus began unbuttoning his shirt. "Good Lord," she muttered. "It's not as if you have invited me into your bed —chambers." She added

"chambers" in a rush, seeing his fingers halt on the third button and the sudden gleam in his eyes. His eyes narrowed. "Am I to understand it is I who have stayed out of your bed?" "You say that as if you're surprised," she snapped. "By God," he thundered. "I will settle this now." He started around the bed. Elise rolled her eyes. "You have no energy to settle

anything." He stopped short. "What the blazes does that mean?" "It means, I have made my bed and I'll lie in it." Alone. Marcus charged across the room. Elise backed up. He grabbed her and tossed her on his bed before she could blink. His lips crashed down on hers in a bruising kiss. Shock ripped through her. Energy pooled in the pit of

her stomach, then between her legs. His hand covered a breast. Elise arched into him. She wanted him, but could she live with the fact he had another woman? He yanked up her night rail and reached between her legs. Yes. She could live with anything if she had him. His fingers probed. Marcus abruptly pulled away from her. He touched her cheek. "Steven is well," he said.

"There is no need to cry." "Cry?" She lifted a finger to her cheek, but even as she did, she realized she was crying. "Unless…" Marcus said. Elise looked at him. "You can't forgive me for Steven. I am sorry. I understood the consequences. I could not change—" "Forgive you," she interrupted. "You have done nothing to forgive. It's my

fault, even your taking a mistress. I can't blame you for wanting—" "A what?" He looked startled. "What?" she repeated. His brows puckered in a fierce frown. "We have been in Ashlund two weeks and already you have me consorting with other women?" "There's no better explanation for the late

nights, your state of dishevelment." "My state of dishevelment?" His gaze swept across her body. "You seem to have forgotten what my state of dishevelment is like when I make love to a woman." He kissed her mouth, her cheek, her ear. "When I make love to you," he whispered. Elise drew a sharp breath as he rocked against her. She

wrapped her arms around his neck. "There is no more Margaret," he whispered. "No more Ardsley, and"—Marcus slid a hand beneath her and lifted her hips to meet each thrust of his hips—"there is no mistress." He pulled his arm from around her, then reached between them and unfastened his trousers. His erection sprang free of its constraints

and Marcus drove himself into her. "There is only you," he said, and began the rhythm that bound them together as one. ####

TO BED A MONTANA MAN KyAnn Waters

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

To Bed A Montana Man COPYRIGHT 2012 by KyAnn Waters All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Contact Information: [email protected] Visit www.KyAnnWaters.com Publishing History First Edition, June 2012 Published in the United States of America

Boston, 1879 Rain stung her cheeks as she lifted her head to get her bearings. Shielding her eyes from the downpour, she still couldn’t read the street signs. Allison Lake’s hands trembled as numbing cold sank into her bones. A noise from the alley momentarily made her forget her

discomfort. She started to run. Her wool cape, now soaked, clung to her slender body. The fabric of her evening dress dripped water, making it even more difficult to move. Lightning forked across the sky. The crack of thunder echoed through the streets. She startled, but she continued to run. She was almost home, her house only a half block down the street.

Footfalls sounded close behind her. Or maybe it was the rain pelting the cobblestones. “Allison, wait.” She turned to see Henry Oakdale quickly closing in on her. “Stay away from me,” she cried, her tears mingling with the rain. “I went looking for you…in the study. I saw you.” Bending over, Henry

braced his hands against his thighs and struggled to catch his breath. “You’re mistaken.” Straightening, his gaze raked up her body. “My father forbids anyone from entering his sanctuary when he is away.” “I saw you!” She pulled her wrap more tightly around her, protecting herself from his open assessment of her clinging, wet dress. “Leave me alone, or I swear I’ll tell.

Your little secret will become grist for the gossip mill.” “Go home, Allison, I believe you will remember differently after a night of reflection.” Gripping her wrist, he brought his thin lips to her frigid fingers. He held tightly as she tried to pull away. “You’re hurting me,” she whimpered. “I’m capable of a great many things.” His eyes

narrowed. “As you have discovered. On the morrow, I will confirm our engagement. I was with you tonight. And do not pretend to not understand my meaning. Our parents will insist on a quick marriage. Imagine our wedding night.” His lips pulled into a sneer. “Or perhaps now, no imagination is needed.” “You wouldn’t.” “I most certainly will.

Our future is set.” Allison couldn’t take that chance. She wouldn’t. So a few hours before sunrise, she quietly left her bedroom. She tiptoed down the stairs and carefully opened the door to her father’s study. With a silver letter opener, she plied the lock loose from the second drawer. Beneath papers and a box of expensive cigars was a small pocket of cloth sewn

into the liner of the drawer. Tearing the cloth in haste, her fingers trembled as she took the key and crossed the room. A small end table with a beautifully carved wood façade hid her father’s house money. When she was little, he had often let her play with the gold and silver coins while he worked at his desk. She knew there was a lot more than coins. She placed the key in the hidden lock and

opened the safe. She took enough money to get far away from Henry, and left a note to both her mother and father in its place. There would be no society wedding, no merging of two prominent families. She wrote them the truth. Whether they ever believed her, mattered not. Slipping out of the house, into the sleeping city, she made her way through the dark streets of Boston to the

train station. “One way, please.” “To where, Miss?” the attendant asked. Gray smoke curled around the engines of trains waiting to depart. Men in top hats and women dressed in fine traveling clothes walked the platform. They seemed so casual, knowing where they were going. She didn’t know where she was going. She only knew she couldn’t stay.

“A ticket west on the first train out.”

Chapter One Montana Territory, 1879 Allison’s stomach turned over twice a minute, anxiety raced along her nerves. Ten long, lonely days finally ended as the train whistled and screeched its way into Copper City. She had finally arrived. Only…where in the

world was she? She stepped from the platform. An uneven board caused her to lose her footing. Her ankle twisted. She gave a squeal as someone’s fingers pressed into the soft flesh under her arms. Her first thought was of the money she had hidden beneath the tightness of her corset. However, she quickly quelled those thoughts as the same strong fingers lay perilously

close to her breast. “Release me,” she said regaining her balance and spinning around. Any further comment stuck in her mouth. Standing before her was a man as large as the Montana Territory. “Excuse me, Ma’am. Meant no harm, just wanted to keep you from a tumble.” Full lips tilted into a beguiling smile. “Thank you.”

He tipped his cowboy hat and moved off down the platform. Allison couldn’t help but watch him walk away. His shirt stretched across the distinct muscles of his back, drawing her attention to his narrow waist and slim hips. Feeling an unfamiliar heat climbing up her neck, she turned and hurried from the platform. Throughout the bustling

town, heavy smoke from the mines drifted through the air in visible layers. Coal stoves spewed black dust from roofs of clapboard structures. Saloons lined the streets. And the whores who worked in the rooms above stood in front of their business establishments wearing corsets and lace, advertising sins of the flesh for a price. This was going to be home. While on the train,

she’d considered all she’d left behind, but also the adventure that awaited her. The fantasy had been much different from her reality. This wasn’t Boston by any measure. Country women were dressed in serviceable clothing; drab, heavy wool skirts without adornment and blouses buttoned to the neck. Clothing suited for work in their homes, not socializing in lady’s clubs as her mother

did. And unlike home, there wasn’t going to be anyone to help her dress, mend her stockings, or launder her gowns. And no one to cook her favorite treats. She was hungry and tired, and the money tucked in the folds of her dress and the few pieces of jewelry in her clutch weren’t going to last long. Never having been responsible for herself, she

had plenty to learn about life in the West. First—a place to stay. Permanent living arrangements could wait a few days, but she needed to clean up, rest, and get a job. The town was much bigger than she had anticipated. A general mercantile butted up next to the bank. She had some experience with a needle and thread. Surely, there was a

need for a seamstress. With a town full of men working in the mines, she was bound to find a job. Allison walked to the hotel. “I’d like a room.” She looked at the front deskman across from her. Hotel work would pay a modest amount and perhaps she could earn room and board. She could clean the rooms, or work at the front desk. A flutter of

excitement tickled her belly. Endless possibilities awaited her. “Pay by the month and get a five dollar discount.” The clerk read a paper and didn’t look up. “Room gets cleaned once a week.” “That’ll be fine.” Allison pulled the drawstring of her purse and retrieved a few bills. “May I inquire if you’re hiring?” “No.”

“No, I can’t ask or no, you aren’t hiring?” “No, we ain’t hiring.” She sighed. “Thank you. How much for a month?” “Ninety-five.” “Dollars?” she asked, shocked. The clerk nodded. “Three-fifty a night, twentyfive dollars a week, or ninetyfive for the month.” Exasperated, he finally looked up at her. “Do you

want a room?” She nodded. “One night, please.” She carefully counted out the money. Change of priorities, find a place to live and try to find a job at the same time. Once settled in her room, Allison took a bath and headed out. The town bustled with people and construction, but not the stone or brick buildings of Boston. Most were wooden structures. She

entered the mercantile and approached the counter. “Do you have a bulletin board?” The plump woman behind the counter nodded to the far wall. Allison thanked her, crossed the room, and glanced over the few pieces of paper. A knot grew in the pit of her stomach. There was plenty of work. Work for men who were prepared to break their backs working in the mines or willing to travel to

the fields to work with the ranchers. There were also a few jobs for skilled labors, skills she didn’t possess. “Excuse me,” she said to the woman. “I’m looking for a job.” Allison pointed to the bulletin board. “I don’t see any work for women. Do you know of any jobs around town for a lady?” The woman laughed, making her stomach bounce, and revealing the gap in her

dark yellow, front teeth. “There’s always work at the saloon. I guess you don’t look like the kind of girl needin’ work around here.” Allison hoped she hid her horror, keeping it from her expression by pressing her lips together. No need to panic, there was always opportunity for a person willing to work hard. “I don’t suppose you’re hiring.” Allison stood at the

counter, resting her arms along the smooth, polished wood. “No, I don’t suppose I am.” The woman came from behind the counter. “Then perhaps you know of a boardinghouse or room I could rent for a modest amount?” The woman chuckled again. “Honey, ain’t nothin’ affordable around here. Haven’t you heard? We’ve

got ourselves a copper rush? Two hundred men a week come into town. You’ll be lucky to find a stall in a stable.” She took a feather duster and began sweeping it along the shelves full of merchandise. Bolts of fabric, clocks, and farm equipment filled tables running the center of the store. Food items lined one wall. Cans of beans and bags of coffee, sugar, and flour piled high

behind the counter. There were brooms in a canister next to the door as well as shoes stacked in boxes in front of the large picture window at the front of the store. “Thank you for your time.” Allison tried not to sound dejected. “You get a room at the saloon if you’re a certain kind of gal,” was the last thing Allison heard as she walked

onto the busy sidewalk outside the mercantile. That night as Allison lay in her hotel bed, she wondered if she had made a mistake in coming to Montana. Maybe she should have gone on to California. It couldn’t be any worse than a mining town. In her ignorance, she’d thought she would get off the train and have a job before nightfall. Working as a whore seemed

to be her only job prospect. She didn’t run from a life of servitude to Henry Oakdale to lay down with strangers. Serving drinks in the saloon would be better than her alternative, but like the proprietor of the general store stated, that didn’t solve the problem of a place to live. Boardinghouses around town were full. Even if they weren’t, she couldn’t afford the rent.

She heaved a heavy sigh. Truthfully, she couldn’t afford to venture onto California nor could she return to Boston with the limited money she had. Her fate was sealed. Copper City may not be the small town she imagined. Nonetheless, she was determined to find a home here.

Chapter Two The following morning dawned dark and cold. Shivering beneath the bedspread, she pulled her knees to her chest and tightened into a ball. Her teeth chattered. She glanced out the small window. Smoke curled into the air and blended with the

gray sky. A few flurries drifted in the air, a sign of what was to come. At first, a light dusting of snow powdered the streets, but then the wind began to blow. By midmorning, she couldn’t see the far side of the street from her hotel room window. And the snow continued to fall. She brought the noontime meal to her room, eating every morsel hoping to

stave off the feeling of an empty stomach until tomorrow. By late afternoon, the streets resembled those of a ghost town. Businesses closed. The only sign of life came from the saloons. Folks who couldn’t get home because of the spring blizzard opted to spend their evening sipping watered-down liquor, and in the company of ladies eager to please.

Three days passed in dreary white boredom. Money trickled from her resources. Allison had no choice but to check out of the hotel. In effort to stay warm, she layered on as many clothes as possible. At this point, every penny mattered. The idea of getting a job at the brothel slipped into the back of her mind. First, there was one alternative she was desperate

enough to try. The snow had stopped but many roads out of town were impassable. Allison went to the general store and rechecked the work board. Nothing had changed but there was still an option. She grabbed the slip of paper from the board and tucked it into her pocket. Now she needed to see the blacksmith about procuring a ride. Passing a beautiful

mansion under construction made Allison a bit nostalgic for life in Boston. Comfort and pampering weren’t important to those working in the mines and working the land. Copper City didn’t have cobblestone streets. Allison swallowed the lump of regret and reminded herself that she chose this life. She was here because she wanted to be and that alone should make her happy.

A few blocks down the street, she found the blacksmith. “I need transportation to somewhere called…” She dropped her satchel and took the slip of paper from her pocket. “…The Bester Ranch.” “And what t’would a lass like you be need’n with the Bester’s?” the blacksmith asked with a thick Irish accent.

“Business.” She clasped her hands in front of her dress to keep from fidgeting. “Would you be able to arrange transportation?” This was her last vestige of hope. She needed a proper job. One wasn’t available. Her next best solution was finding a job that wouldn’t bring her principles into question, and she couldn’t do that unless she somehow got to that ranch.

The blacksmith stood and wiped his hands on the apron tied around his waist. “I would be happy to pay a reasonable fee,” she offered when he hesitated. “Wagon o’er there…” He nodded his head toward a wagon in front of the mercantile. “He’s a lad from the Bester’s. Comes t’ town once a week for supplies if the weather holds.” He hitched his trousers up by the

belt loop and spit into a snow bank behind him. “Bonne lass like yourself should’na have any trouble.” He winked and then turned back to his fire pit. “Thank you.” She grabbed her bag, lifted her skirt an inch off the ground, and hurried across the slick road. The man couldn’t have been much older than twenty. He was wearing a heavy

winter coat with a wool collar pulled high around his neck. Allison stood next to the wagon and waited for him to finish positioning a crate of supplies before she interrupted. “Excuse me.” He turned in her direction and adjusted the rim of his cowboy hat. He nodded an acknowledgement and then lifted another crate. “The blacksmith said you worked at the Bester Ranch.”

The man stood and wiped his brow with his coat sleeve. After removing one of his gloves, he retrieved a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and rolled a cigarette. “It’s imperative I get to the ranch.” She switched her bag from one hand to the other. Trying to sound professional, she angled her chin and met his gaze directly. “I have business with Mr. Bester. I would be

happy to pay a reasonable fee.” “No need for that,” he said, clenching the cigarette between his teeth and put his glove back on. “Give me thirty minutes.” “Thank you.” She felt like clapping her hands, but restrained herself. “I guess I’ll get a cup of coffee. If you have a canteen, I’d be happy to have it filled.” “That’d be great,” he

groaned as he lifted a heavy satchel. “Don’t be late. Another storm’s coming and I want to beat the snow.” “Thirty minutes.” She clutched her bag and walked a half block to the restaurant advertising hot coffee and fresh pastries in the window. * * * They made introductions as he helped her onto the buckboard. “How far is it to the

ranch?” Allison asked the young man who called himself Train. “Depends on whether it starts to snow again. Should be there before supper.” Allison pulled her coat a little tighter. The time was barely noon now and since leaving the shelter of the city, it seemed colder. They rode in silence mixed with sporadic comments for a while before

the conversation became easier. “You’ve got a real pretty voice. Can’t place the accent. Where’re you from, Miss Lake?” She giggled at his easy drawl and pleasing dimples. He was soft spoken and handsome and that made her self-conscious sitting so close to him on the swaying buckboard. His voice was warm and deep, making her

think of cedar and molasses. There wasn’t anything rushed about the man. A few days worth of whiskers shadowed his strong jaw. His eyes were the color of the darkening sky out ahead of them. His thick coat hid the muscles of his arms, but he had to be strong. The reins were secure in his grip. “Boston,” she answered his question. “I’ve only been in Copper City a few days. I

have to admit, I’m quite surprised at the size of the town. I thought the western territories would be different. I’d hoped to find a small community where I could build a quiet life.” She nearly bit her lip at the slip. She hadn’t intended to reveal her uncertain beginnings in Copper City. Revealing too much would leave her open to questions she wasn’t inclined to answer. However, Train

didn’t seem to notice her discomfort. “You got family around here?” He watched the road, and the horses plodded through the drifts. “No.” She didn’t look at him, keeping her eyes on the snow covered landscape instead. They were in a small valley. Towering on each side were tree-covered mountains. A few hours into their journey, Train pulled a sack

from under their seat. “Are you hungry?” He placed the bag between them. “I’ll share my lunch.” Embarrassed for not thinking of bringing her own lunch, she said, “No, thank you. I ate before we left.” “If you change your mind, help yourself,” he said, pulling a crusty piece of bread and a piece of jerky from the bag and then taking a bite.

Allison’s stomach growled as Train ate the sandwich in five bites. He chuckled softly and looked at the sky. It had grown dark, not just from the winter sun sinking behind the mountains, but because the sky turned ominous. Snow began to fall again. “Doesn’t look like we’ll beat the storm,” Train said. “Is there somewhere for us to stop?”

Train pulled his collar up around his ears. “Nope, we ride it out. Hopefully we’ll get to the ranch before we run out of road.” The smile on his face told her not to worry. “Is your given name Train?” The brow over his left eye arched. “Never mind. It’s none of my business.” “People call me Train because I run back and forth

to town and drive the herds to auction. Just about everyone at the ranch has a nickname given by the boss. Hell, even the boss goes by TJ. I don’t think anyone knows his real name. Well, except for me.” He winked at her. “How do you like working at the Bester Ranch?” Allison tried to sound casual, but she was extremely interested in learning all she could about

TJ Bester. She hoped he had an open mind because she was going to apply for a job he’d advertised for a man. There had to be something on a ranch as large as the Bester’s for her to do. She didn’t have experience with anything, so whether helping in the fields, or the house, she needed training. “I’ve worked for the Bester’s since I was able to sit on a horse and muck out a

stall.” “What about Mr. Bester?” She pressed. “Is he a good boss?” “Well, there’s not much I can say there. He’s a fair man who works hard for what he has. He’s a private man, Miss Allison, and he doesn’t take to people’s gossip. I figure if you’re expected on business out at the ranch, you know enough about that yourself.” Allison didn’t feel it

necessary to correct his assumption. She was not expected and probably not wanted. With a persuasive argument, she’d just have to convince TJ Bester that she was the right man for his ranch. It was dark when they pulled up to a large building with several illuminated glass windows. The plain looking structure set apart from a few other out buildings. “I’ll take

you up to the house as soon as I check in. Sit tight. I’ll be right back.” Train set the break and then jumped from the buckboard. A roar of laughter erupted from inside when Train opened the door and disappeared into the building. Allison looked into the distance. The main house sat on a bluff overlooking the property. From here, Allison could only discern a few

details. Large bay windows flickered with pale light. When a lump formed in her throat, she swallowed hard. The house looked like a home. A place for a family. She ached to belong somewhere, anywhere. “Ready?” Train jumped up, released the break, and set the horses moving. As they approached the sprawling, two-level mansion, Allison gasped a

breath. Numerous windows glowed with firelight. Several chimneys jutted from the pitched roof and spewed gray, billowing smoke. The front door was centered in the middle of the main floor, windows banked both sides. A wide porch wrapped around the entire length of the building. Silhouetted in the darkness, several large trees stood like barren sentries. And within a few

minutes, Allison was climbing the steps and walking across the wood plank porch. She smiled as she stepped over wooden blocks and avoided bumping into a rocking horse someone had obviously spent a great deal of time carving. Train knocked twice and opened the door. “TJ!” he hollered as he entered the house. “Just got in. I’m heading back out to the

shack. Miss Allison is here.” He turned to her. “Miss, are you okay?” No, she wasn’t okay. Her mouth was dry, and her heart pounded from her chest into her head. Sweat trickled from her hairline and it had nothing to do with the heat caused by wearing her wardrobe—all of it—in layers. Her carpetbag held a special dress and a few personal effects. It hung in her hand like a hundred

pound weight, making her shoulder sag. She glanced around the room feeling like a deer in a hunter’s rifle site. Train’s voice beside her brought her out of her stupor. “He is expecting you?” Allison could only shake her head no. “What are you doing here?” “Train? I thought you left.” TJ Bester descended the grand staircase leading to the

second floor rooms. “Hello.” He extended his hand to Allison. “TJ Bester. A friend of yours?” he asked Train. “Um,” he stammered. “No.” Allison would have spoken, but her mouth wouldn’t form words. Standing before her was not an old rancher with weathered skin that she could bat her eyelashes at and manipulate into giving her a

job out of pity. TJ Bester was a beautiful example of strength and masculinity with a commanding air of confidence. Her heart hammered in her chest, and not for the first time since coming to Montana Territory. They’d met before. Familiar wide shoulders tapered into a trim waist. Strong thighs were clad in denim trousers, and he wore brown socks. His work boots

sat neatly next to the door. Hair the color of coal grew thick and just a bit unruly. He was ruggedly handsome in a way that made her anxious. His eyes seemed to glow and were blue so clear she could have been gazing into still waters. “Papa,” a little girl, no more than five or six, caused enough of a diversion for Allison to pull her stare away from Mr. Bester.

“Watch your brother, Sissy. I’ll be there in a minute.” He turned toward Train. “Go check the tiger. He’s in the tub.” Train took the stairs two at a time grabbing the little girl and tickling her as he turned the corner. Allison could hear her squeals even after she disappeared from view. “Miss?” He paused for her to say her name. “Allison Lake,” she said

with a determined tilt to her chin. She was sure she looked a mess from her wet ride to the ranch. Evidently, a far cry from the woman he assisted on the train platform. With the added clothing and a few restless nights, she scarcely recognized herself when looking in the mirror. Not to mention it was late. She was tired and hungry. It had been hours since she’d eaten, and she was beginning to feel

light-headed. “You’ve come a long way. What can I do for you?” TJ slipped his hands into his pockets and leaned against the stair railing. He knew this would be interesting. The young woman’s fingers trembled as she opened the clasp of her small clutch. He recognized the paper she unfolded and

smoothed with her hand. He felt his mouth twitch. She stared at the advertisement she must have taken from the mercantile. The next time Train went into town, he’d have him hang another one. “I’m here to apply for the position.” She handed him the paper. TJ laughed. He had to admit she sounded confident as she spoke. “This is a posting for a ranch hand.”

“I have two hands,” she said showing her naiveté. “I can do many tasks.” TJ rolled his eyes. “I can cook.” “There are a hundred men working on this ranch at any given time. I have all the cooks I need.” “Oh, well, that’s probably for the best. Cooking isn’t my best skill. I’m much better at housework. It would give

your wife more time for herself.” “I’m not in need of a housekeeper.” “Oh. Um…” Her hesitation told him she hadn’t really expected to be turned away. She tugged her bottom lip between her teeth. “I can clean up after the stock. Help in the fields. Honestly, I am willing to do anything.” TJ put up his hand stopping her from continuing.

“Not only do I not need a girl who doesn’t look strong enough to lift her bag, let alone work the ranch, but I don’t have the facilities to house you. I’ve got one large building that houses all the help. More specifically, I hire men.” Some of the men he employed were drifters, others had been with him for years. This woman wouldn’t last an hour. “I can stay in the barn

with the animals.” TJ snorted. “You’re obviously new to Montana. It’s too cold in the barns. You’ll freeze. Look outside. It snowed two feet since yesterday and we’ve still got at least another two months of heavy snows. No, now I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” “I understand. Sorry to waste your time.” She turned from him and reached for the door handle.

“Oh hell,” he whispered. He didn’t have to see tears to know she was struggling to keep her composure. Her breath hitched, shoulders shuddered, and then she took a deep inhale and turned the handle. “Hold on.” He ran his hands through his hair. “You can wait until first light to go back to town.” She turned and faced him. “I rode out with Train

assuming I would be staying on as a hired hand. I would appreciate it if you could make arrangements to take me back to Copper City.” With her chin raised, back erect, she stood even with his chest. TJ groaned. “You mean to say you traveled thirty miles for a job you should’ve known you couldn’t do? Of all the dumb—” “Papa?” The little girl

returned, followed by Train carrying a small child in his arms. “He needs a diaper. And that is not one of my job duties.” He handed the child to TJ. “Besides, I’m done tending to the youngins.” Train opened the front door. “I’ll need you to go to town again tomorrow,” TJ called as Train walked out. “Can’t, boss. You’ll have to ask someone else.” The

door closed with a resounding thud. “I’ll find my own way.” Allison opened the door and went after Train. TJ stood in the doorway and listened. Train smiled at the young woman as she approached the rig. TJ didn’t have to wonder how she’d convinced his right-hand man to bring her back with him. The woman had a certain appeal. She was

attractive, if not a little plump. The kind of woman who felt good under a man. “I’m sorry I misrepresented myself. I really thought Mr. Bester might have a job for me.” “I could have told you there weren’t any women out here. Unless of course, you’re a wife.” Train leaned against the rear of the wagon and crossed his arms. “Maybe I could talk with

Mrs. Bester? She might like some help taking care of the house.” “TJ makes all the decisions.” He walked around the side of the wagon. “I’m afraid if he said you have to leave, there’s not much anyone can do to change his mind.” Train jumped into the driver’s seat, nodded to TJ watching from the door, and set off down the hill.

Light spilled across the porch. TJ stood in the door still holding the small child. Cast in shadow, his expression indiscernible. “Come inside.” The voice revealed nothing, yet caressed her skin with an intimidating awareness. The fine hairs on her arms prickled beneath the layers of clothing. “We’ll get you to town tomorrow.”

Allison reluctantly went back into the house. “Take off your coat.” He turned to the little girl. “Sissy, take our guest into the kitchen and get her something to eat. I need to get your brother dressed for bed.” After Allison removed her coat, Sissy led her to the back of the house. At first glance, the house looked perfect. Allison’s eyes adjusted to

the dim lighting, she noticed several details hadn’t been seen to in what looked like quite a while. The wood floors didn’t shine with fresh polish. Spiders had been busy making small webs in the chandelier. And a thin layer of dust covered a mahogany table in the hall. Although there were beautiful doilies on the table, the ivory color had yellowed. “Would you like a

sandwich or leftover supper? I usually save the leftover supper for papa’s lunch, but I can make him something else tomorrow.” Sissy pulled a stool to the edge of the counter and easily climbed up. She clearly had a system for retrieving items. She crawled and hopped from one location to another in the spacious room. Finally, she jumped down and opened the stove.

“Be careful.” Allison leapt from the table and took the heavy cloth from her hand. “You shouldn’t touch the stove.” Sissy tugged the cloth back and pulled open the oven door. She grabbed a small piece of wood from a crate and tossed it into the fire. “I know what I’m doing,” she said, and smiled. “I’m almost seven. Do you want coffee? Papa says I

make the best.” She set the kettle on the stove to heat. “Yes, I would. Can I help you?” “You’re a guest.” Sissy took four cups from the cupboard. “I need to get my brother some milk.” Her long skinny arms shook as she lifted the heavy carafe. Slowly, she filled two cups half full. “So what do you want to eat?” she asked, setting one of the cups on the

tray of a high chair sitting against the wall near the stove. “Whatever you feel like making would be fine.” Allison wondered where her mother was. “Here we are.” TJ put his son in the high chair and helped him with his cup of milk. “Is that coffee I smell?” he asked, smiling at his daughter. Sissy took the hot coffee

from the stove and poured both TJ and Allison a cup. Then the little girl proceeded to fill the rest of her milk cup to the top with coffee. Allison wanted to ask this father what he was thinking letting his child have coffee, especially before bed. However, her situation was precarious enough without insulting the man who offered, or rather relented and gave her shelter for the night.

While they ate, the little boy stared at her and Sissy chattered. Twenty minutes later, TJ dismissed himself to put the little boy to bed. Allison and Sissy went into the large front room. Store bought furniture mixed nicely with homemade wooden pieces. Sissy sat near the fire, which left Allison to sit on the sofa. There were other chairs in the room, but she

wanted to stay close to the fire’s warmth. Tomorrow she might just be on the streets of Copper City. “If you want, I’ll comb your hair for you.” Allison felt for the child. Her hair was long and tangled. “When I was young, my mother used to brush my hair after a bath. I always liked it.” Sissy thought about it for a moment before jumping from her seat and running up

the stairs. “Sis,” TJ yelled. “Please be quiet so he can go to sleep.” Allison smiled at the irony. TJ’s yelling right next to the little boy couldn’t be helping. A minute later, Sissy came charging down the stairs. Once again, TJ hollered. Allison giggled. Sissy rolled her eyes. “He’s too all-fired tired to do

much more than belly-achin’. When he’s real wrathy, he’d liking to tan my backside. He tells me that, but he never does.” Sissy held a boar hairbrush with a silver engraved handle. Abalone shells decorated the back of the brush in an interesting flower design. “When I was growing up, my mother did all the yelling.” “My mama doesn’t say

nothing.” Allison wanted Sissy to continue, but the little girl plopped down to the floor and crossed her legs. “You have beautiful hair.” Allison parted Sissy’s hair into small sections. Working from the roots, she pulled the snarls loose, careful not to yank on the hair and hurt her scalp. “It’s the same color as your papa’s.” “Papa tells me I look like

my mama.” “Then your mama is very beautiful.” Sissy seemed very pleased. She smiled and her shoulders visibly relaxed. Sissy’s chatter abruptly ended when TJ returned from putting his son to bed. He clapped his hands twice, and Sissy jumped from the floor and ran into his arms. After kissing his cheek, she turned to Allison. “Good night, Miss

Allison,” she said, and clamored up the stairs. TJ cringed and Allison nearly laughed. Sissy blew her father a kiss at the top of the stairs. He shook his head, but Allison saw the hint of a smile tilt his lips. “She’s sweet,” Allison said. TJ watched her without actually looking. She could feel the weight of his stare, but when she glanced at him, he turned away.

With Sissy gone, Allison became uncomfortable with the silence. TJ crossed the room. He had his back to her as he poured himself a drink at the marble-topped liquor counter stocked with glass decanters filled to various levels. “Can I get you a drink?” Allison had never wanted to drink before, but somehow the offer from TJ enticed. The flicker of the fireplace

reflected off the crystal glass he held in his hand. The amber liquid swirled and hypnotized. She didn’t hear TJ repeat the question. He turned to her. Those blue eyes caused her to flush. “Thank you, but I don’t drink,” she stammered. “You can have water, or there’s milk in the kitchen.” “I suppose with two kids you can never have enough milk,” she said.

Allison was uncomfortable. TJ was a married man with two children, not to mention a stranger, and they seemed to be the only two adults in the house, all good reasons to feel uneasy sitting alone with him in the firelight on a cold and stormy night. Her stomach pitched and rolled. The long ride, coupled with the loneliness she’d been feeling since the onset of her

journey, came to an apex. What else offered an explanation to why her body tingled under his watchful gaze? “I appreciate your kindness. I realize now what an inconvenience I’ve caused. I assure you, it wasn’t my intention. I’m simply desperate for a way to earn money.” Allison folded her hands in her lap. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

She flicked an imaginary speck of dirt from her skirt. Maybe she never should’ve left Boston. At some point, after she’d given Henry children, marriage to him would’ve become bearable. Money equaled power; the Oakdale’s had both. But still… “I never should have come here.” “You’re no different than anyone else. We all need to make our way somehow.

You’ll think more clearly in the morning after you’ve slept.” She didn’t want to explain Boston, Henry, or the direness of her predicament. Tomorrow TJ Bester would barely be an acquaintance. What benefit would there be in sharing her burden? “Actually, I am tired.” She covered her mouth as she yawned. “And I suppose if I’m to be honest, I knew it

was unlikely you’d have a position for me.” “Don’t worry about it. It takes a lot of mettle to take a chance. If you were a man, I’d probably find a place for you.” He swallowed the last of his drink. “I’ll build a fire in the guest room so you can get some sleep.” “That’s not necessary. I don’t want to impose any more than I have. I can sleep without a fire.” She started to

follow him out of the room. “Stay put. I’ll be a few minutes and it’ll take some time for the room to warm.” Without a sound, his stocking feet took him up the stairs. It was several minutes later when TJ touched her shoulder, startling her. “Ready?” Allison leapt off the couch. She didn’t want to admit TJ made her heart skip a beat. Handsome men had

spoken with her before, and she had never felt weak in the knees. Of course, there was always the exception, such as at the train platform with this very same man. Here was a man with a wife, a family, and a successful ranch. Yet, alone with him, this large room closed in on her. Wherever he stood, the warmth of his body touched hers. Never had she been so keenly aware of a

man. Allison picked up her bag and followed him up the stairs. “Your home is beautiful.” “My wife’s responsible for that. She told me what she wanted and I built it.” “You built this house?” The arched ceilings reminded her of the smooth underside of a boat. “I’ll be sure to tell her what lovely taste she has.”

“We get up early around here.” He opened the bedroom door. “I don’t know who’ll be driving you back to town. Be ready by sunup because whoever gets the privilege is going to want to get an early start.” There was a note of sarcasm to his tone. Allison walked into the room. “Mr. Bester?” She stood a few feet in front of him holding her bag. “Are you sure there’s no work

around here that would be suitable for me? Perhaps your wife would like help around the house. I love to do laundry and clean floors.” If she couldn’t change his mind, tomorrow she would definitely be in a new line of work by sundown. “My wife doesn’t like other women in the house. Good night, Miss Lake.” He softly closed the door.

Chapter Three The following morning, back in Copper City, Allison sat in a restaurant across the street from a large brothel. Business appeared to be a booming at the Dusty Rose. Men entered with alarming regularity. Was the work split between many women at the establishment or just a few?

Her head spun with the severity of her situation. Granted, the money would be better if a girl stayed busy, but the amount of men overwhelmed if there were only a few whores. How many men could a woman service in a day? Didn’t she get tired? Could she do it? Could she lay down with men for money? Since she didn’t have a place to stay, didn’t have

much money left, she was out of options. Trying to look as pleasing as possible, she left the top button of her blouse undone. With an awkward sway of her hips—is this really how women entice men?—she crossed the street to do the unthinkable. “I will not cry. I will not cry,” she repeated softly to herself, walking into the building. Smoke hung heavy in the air. Men milled about. Some

sat with women in comfortable looking chairs covered with red and royal purple velour. Breasts overflowed from corsets. One man had his hand on the exposed flesh of a woman’s calf as her legs draped across his lap. Bronze statues of naked woman adorned small square tables set in each corner. Wallpaper with an ornate pattern of vines and leaves had turned from a

blend of copper and gold, to a mustard yellow and rust. It was beginning to peel around the ceiling and window edges. Enticing women flaunted their bodies while serving drinks to men sitting at tables smoking cigars and laughing loudly. A girl made her way upstairs. How long before she’d be back for another customer? They didn’t pay whores to talk.

A pretty, blond girl tossed her head back and laughed when a man, dirty from the mines with a wiry black beard, slapped her on the fanny and pushed her toward the stairs. “See to my needs, little lassie,” he said with a thick Irish accent. Several men had thick drawls. Their laughter rumbled around the room. “Can I help you?” a raspy voice asked. “You look

like you’re in the wrong place.” Allison caught her reflection in a large sconce mirror hanging on the wall. She gasped at the pasty image. Now that she was here, she wanted to be home married to Henry having his arrogant children and living a miserable life. She couldn’t do this. Never did she imagine life in the West would be a

disappointment. Of course, there were jobs. Cooks, seamstresses, librarians, and schoolteachers. But alas, more people were coming into town than there was work for them to do. She was a few weeks away from turning eighteen, without any experience. And if she wasn’t careful, she wouldn’t have this as a possibility either. “Honey? Are you looking for someone?” the

woman asked. “Hello, you do talk, don’t you?” “I don’t…” Allison looked around wildly. “I…” She broke into tears. “Oh dear, come with me.” The woman took her by the arm and led her down a long hall and into a private room. “This is the third time this week I’ve had a girl break into tears in my parlor at the thought of becoming a whore.”

The room had a large desk sitting in the center. In contrast to the parlor, in this room the walls were covered with beautiful paintings and satin cloth. The effect was very elegant. Black, oriental cabinets inlaid with designs of birds and plants lined one wall. “My name’s Sandy.” She handed Allison a hankie. “Dry your eyes. Tell me your name and what you’re doing

here.” Although Sandy was older than most of the women sitting in the parlor, she was still very attractive. Hair the color of a setting sun in the fall was piled high on her head. Her ample bosom barely contained in a red corset. Black fabric cascaded over the curves of her hips draping to the floor. A sheer robe, belted at the waist, wrapped around her shoulders

and fell open at her legs. Allison sniffed a few times. “I came to Copper City about a week ago. I didn’t expect it to be so expensive. But I couldn’t stay in Boston and now I just want to go home.” She started to cry again. Sandy sat on a heartshaped sofa with heart-shaped throw pillows. “And you’ve come to ask for money? I’m a business woman, honey. Why

would you think I would give you anything?” “Oh no,” she said, horrified. “I would never beg for money.” “Then what do you want?” Sandy stood, causing her silk robe to balloon and sway as she retrieved a cigarette off the desk. Allison had never smoked tobacco. Sandy licked her lips, puckered her mouth drawing attention to

the thin wrinkles, and inhaled deeply. The tip glowed red. Sandy held the smoke momentarily, finally exhaling on a sigh. “I need a job.” Sandy burst into raucous laughter, causing her milky brown eyes to sparkle. “And what would a prim little girl like you do in my brothel? You don’t look like you have any experience with men.” She walked a wide circle

around Allison looking at her from every angle. “You’re pretty enough, but men who come in here don’t require a woman to be beautiful as long as she’s attentive.” Her smile, filled with mirth, caused her to cough. Nervous under Sandy’s scrutiny, Allison’s fingers fidgeted with the fabric of her dress. “What’s your name?” Sandy asked.

“Allison.” “So Allison, you want to be one of my girls?” Sandy sat behind her desk. Slipping on her reading glasses, she said, “I think you ought to know what I’ll expect.” She extinguished her cigarette into a polished copper ashtray. “We’re busy and not just in the evenings. Sometimes the girls do more business during the day than they do at night. My doors

never close. If a man comes in and wants to see you at four in the morning on a Sunday and you’ve only been asleep for an hour, wake up. You’re going back to work.” She leaned back in the chair and stretched like a cat. Allison remained standing in the center of the room. “Sit down. You’re making me uncomfortable,” Sandy instructed and then continued. “It’s hard work, Allison.

Maybe you think it’s glamorous. It’s not. Most of the men are not knights in shining armor. Some are dirty and most of them stink from the mines.” Her deep, whiskey intonation lost all trace of humor. Allison finally found her voice. “Or maybe most of the girls in here are just like me. I didn’t have a choice when I left home. Now I’m here, and I have nowhere else to go.

Does anyone choose this profession?” “Surprisingly, yes. A few are like myself and enjoy men. I could never be a farmer’s wife. I’m a preacher’s daughter. But you’re right, most of the girls are uneducated, and then they find themselves here, and aren’t quite sure how it happened.” Allison sat in the chair across from the Sandy. “I

know exactly why I’m here, to have sex with men for money. Every girl has a first time. I’m sure mine will be no different. I knew when I walked through the door that this was a brothel. I’m fully aware that I’m asking you to give me a job as a whore. Will I like doing it? I hope not,” she said, disgusted. “All right.” Sandy held up her hands. “You’ve sold me. I want you to watch the

other girls tonight. This might not be something you can do.” “How much money will I make?” Allison’s cheeks warmed just saying the words. “Depends on you. Do you have any experience?” Allison shook her head. “I assume your mother explained a few things?” “My fiancé made sure I knew what was expected

from a wife. I know about the intimacies between a man and a woman.” “Fiancé?” She was shaking her head. “I don’t need a husband storming through my doors.” “Ex-fiancé. He is far from here and won’t be coming for me.” Sandy hesitated. “Learning there’s more to sex than the basics won’t take you long. But you’re

concerned with the money.” Sandy sighed and lit another cigarette. “I provide a place for you to sleep, food for you to eat, and I provide the customers. Without my name and reputation, this place is just another brothel. You’re here because you know this is a clean establishment. “My girls are the cleanest and the most attentive, and I’ll expect the same from you. I’ve been in this business for

a long time and I’m fair. I take seventy-five percent of everything you earn. I’m responsible for the upkeep on the building, and I hire security. You won’t have to worry about feeling the force of a man’s fist. No one has ever been beat up in my brothel. I have a contract you’ll need to sign.” Sandy walked around the desk and took Allison by the elbow. “I’m going to talk to

Marion. I want her to show you around. You can sleep in her room tonight. In the morning, if you still want the job, we’ll assign you a room and get you fitted for a new wardrobe.” She leaned in close to Allison’s ear as they walked down the hall. “I pay for that, too. Marion is about your size. See if she’ll loan you something for tonight.” Sandy looked at Allison’s much smaller breasts.

“You’re far too slender to fit anything of mine.” Sandy laughed causing her extended bosom to nearly spill from her corset. “Allison, honey, in this line of work you’re going to have to develop a sense of humor.” She looked at Allison’s breasts again. “If nothing else.” * * * * * Laughter echoed through the halls. Women fawned over men. And men

consumed liquor. Either the whores should have gone into the theater, or they were actually having a good time. Allison wanted to laugh again, instead she felt like crying. The first time would be the hardest. A stranger who wasn’t aware she was a virgin might not show her gentleness. She wanted tenderness and love, but knew the men who visited

whorehouses weren’t looking for long-term relationships. They didn’t care about conversation and they surely weren’t going to hold her hand. Tomorrow she would be set apart from a life as a wife and mother. What man would want a whore for anything more than a night of sex? “Sandy?” Allison gently tapped on the office door. “Come on in, honey.”

Allison entered and closed the door behind her. “Change your mind already? Well, don’t worry if this work isn’t the life for you. You’re a good girl and you’ll make some lucky man a proper wife. Going to have a couple of little ones too, I’ll bet?” Sandy winked and her ruby-red lips tilted slightly higher. “I haven’t changed my mind.” Allison sat in a chair

and tried to cover her bosom with her arms. Giving up, she folded her hands in her lap. The dress Marion had given her to wear was low cut. “The girls are laughing and smiling. Everyone seems happy.” “Most of the girls here have been in the business a long time,” Sandy said. “I suppose if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t still be doing it. Hell, even I still see a

couple of regulars. Although most of the time, I socialize in the lounge. Once this business is in your blood, it’s hard to walk away. There aren’t very many places to go from here, Allison, make sure this is what you want.” “I don’t want to be here. I’m out of money and out of options.” Allison was quiet for a moment. “I’m scared, Sandy.” She blinked tears from her eyes. “I’ve never—”

She didn’t have to finish the sentence. “We have ways of seeing that your discomfort is minimized before you take a man to your room, or I can make sure your first time is with someone who’ll be gentle. Although,” she said with raised eyebrows. “You could get a lot of money. Men will pay more for a virgin.” Her stomach churned. “I know. That’s why I wouldn’t

want them to know. I don’t want to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.” “Enjoy yourself tonight. Tomorrow will take care of itself. But listen, you let me know if you see someone who sparks your interest.” “What if no one wants to be with me?” “Don’t you worry. You’ll feel eyes on every part of you tonight. Don’t be afraid. Smile, laugh, try to get

comfortable with attention from men.” Sandy grinned. “After you discover the pleasure of a man, you’ll grow to anticipate it. Some know just how to stir a woman.” She knew exactly what Sandy spoke of. Just thinking about Mr. Bester caused lightness in her stomach. She might just have to imagine every man she took to her bed looked like the rugged

Montana man. * * * * * The next night, Allison spent an extra few minutes looking in the mirror. She wore her hair like the other girls. With the sides combed back and held with a clip, her hair cascaded down her back. A few ringlets framed her face. She finished the look with a touch of Marion’s pink rouge and a bit of red tint on her lips.

Until her clothing could be made, she borrowed a few pieces from everyone to give herself an assortment of feathers, lace, and silk. Tonight she wore a crushed velvet, burgundy camisole. Sheer black lace billowed from the slit up the front of the matching skirt. A string of glass beads draped her neck. “Are you ready?” Marion came into the room. Her shiny, black hair fell to her

waist. “We’re busy,” she said, excited. Lashes, long and black, framed almond-shaped eyes. “I saw this man last week, and he said he’d be back to see me.” She squealed and sat in front of her vanity to freshen her make-up. Although with her olive complexion, it wasn’t necessary. “I just saw him downstairs.” She blotted her lips and went to the washbowl. “Damn.” She

turned to Allison. “I’m out of water. He can’t see me until I’m ready. Will you run for me?” Allison took the water pitcher. “Of course. I’m not ready to be seen yet either. This will give me something to do.” Allison left the room and returned a few minutes later. “Thank you,” Marion said gratefully, taking the pitcher and then filling the

basin. “You’re this excited to see him? Isn’t sex mundane by now?” Marion rolled her eyes in a playful manner. Then she took off her dress. “He smells good, dresses well, and takes his time to make sure I’m pleasured.” Allison blushed. Marion laughed. “After a while, men all look the same. Then a man comes in that sets

him apart. Frank makes love…with rigorous passion.” Marion splashed water under her arms and between her legs. Then she quickly dried and applied scented powder to her skin. “If someone gets to him before I do…” She let the statement hang. “Go then.” Allison pushed her toward the door. “I’ve finished moving my things to the other room. I’ll clean up in here, change the

water, straighten the bed, and pick up the clothes. Give him a drink and give me ten minutes.” “Are you sure?” Allison nodded. “Allison, I’m so glad you’ve joined us.” She lightly kissed her on the cheek. “I think you’re stalling. You can’t avoid the inevitable. There always has to be a first. I know Sandy is watching for someone who’ll be gentle.

Taking a man to bed isn’t love. It’s work. And once you’re a whore, you’ll never be anything else. Why don’t you find some handsome cowboy to give your virginity to? Then the choice is yours. Just avoid the miners. They smell and are too tired to put in any effort.” “It doesn’t matter. I won’t be with someone I love.” “The first time isn’t for

pleasure. Just get it over with. But after that, sex feels good. I love a man with strong hands and plenty between his legs.” “Marion!” She smiled wickedly. “Believe me, it isn’t often I get pleasured, too.” Allison closed the door. Marion’s laughter faded as she made her way downstairs. Later that night, Allison mingled with the other girls.

She even began to feel comfortable talking to the gentlemen having drinks in the lounge. Sandy was always in view when Allison needed encouragement. A wink and an inviting smile infused Allison with new determination to find someone to take upstairs. Many men expressed their desire, but Sandy had yet to give the green light. * * * * *

Marion returned two hours later to find Sandy watching the lounge from an obscured position. “So how come she’s still socializing?” “You look worn out.” Sandy chuckled. “Yeah, well, you don’t rush a master.” She smoothed her hair with the palms of her hands. “So what’s up? Who’s the lucky one?” “Allison is a lady. She reeks of money even though

she claims she doesn’t have any. She shouldn’t be here.” Sandy sighed. “I had hoped she’d change her mind. I don’t know what she’s hiding or what she’s running from but she can’t hide her upbringing. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why someone of her caliber would choose this life over one of comfort.” “You did.” Sandy shrugged.

“What are you going to do?” “Allison made her choice. What can I do about it? If she’s not working for me, she’ll work for someone else.” “With her style and looks, she’s going to be popular.” “That’s what I’m afraid of.” Sandy left Marion and entered the lounge. “Allison, I see you’ve

met Mr. Clark. How’s business at the bakery?” she asked. “Busy. My daughters take care of most things now. They say I work too much. I decided to listen for once. I came into your lovely parlor to relax. I’ve been having a pleasant conversation with Miss Allison.” Mr. Clark was a wellgroomed man in his fifties. He’d been coming to the

brothel ever since his wife passed a few years prior. “Perhaps Miss Allison would like to escort you upstairs?” Allison’s mouth suddenly became dry and her palms grew moist. “All right.” Allison stood when Sandy gave her that knowing wink that said everything would be fine. Mr. Clark carried his hat

as he followed Allison to her room. “I don’t need much,” he said, closing the door. Mr. Clark placed his hat on the hook on the wall. “Here.” He handed her a small bottle of perfume. “Please wear this.” He took off his suit coat and began to unhook the clasp of his trousers. “I miss my wife, you see.” His trousers fell to the floor. “Of course, you’re young and beautiful. You

could never look like my wife, but you can smell like her.” Allison opened the perfume and sniffed the overly sweet fragrance. Using as little as possible, she touched the stopper to her wrists and neck. Slowly and methodically, Allison unbuttoned the front of her corset while Mr. Clark finished undressing then went to the bed. She turned from

his stare and began removing her clothing. Falling to the floor, her skirt pooled around her feet leaving her standing nude with her back to Mr. Clark. “Turn around, Miss Allison. Let me admire you.” Allison’s chin nearly rested on her chest as she turned and let her arms fall to her sides. Mr. Clark patted the edge of the bed.

Allison approached. Every step felt like a thousand pounds. Her legs were exhausted when she found herself sitting on the bed. Mr. Clark, with a warm, soft, but trembling hand touched the skin of her shoulder. Allison shuddered. Tears filled her eyes and then spilled onto her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “Sorry? You’ve done

nothing wrong? Have I done something to upset you?” She shook her head. “It’s not you,” she said, hiccupping through her words. “You’re so kind to be patient with me.” Realization dawned on Mr. Clark. Red crawled up his neck and settled in his cheeks. “Miss Alison, you are a beautiful girl. I can see now you’re still a child. I’ve got two daughters at home and I

could never look at them again knowing that I was a first for you.” He hurried and pulled on his trousers. “Please stay.” She took part of the blanket from the bed to cover herself. Mr. Clark was dressed with his suit coat misbuttoned. “You do smell nice.” He turned and slipped out the door. Allison fell back onto the bed and buried her face in the

pillow. A few minutes later, a soft knock came to the door. “Allison?” Marion asked. “Can I come in?” She didn’t wait for a reply. Marion entered the room and sat next to Allison on the bed. “What happened?” Allison groaned, buried underneath the blanket. “Sandy caught Mr. Clark on his way out. He was upset.” Marion put her foot

up on the bed and picked at her toenail. “Sandy apologized to him. It took a little convincing, but Sandy was able to send him off with Cassie.” She put her foot back down, and leaned over Allison placing a hand on her shoulder. “I know Mr. Clark is a nice man. If he did anything to hurt you—” Allison interrupted. “It wasn’t him. He knew it was my first time when I took off

my clothes. I bawled at the first touch.” “Sandy isn’t mad.” Marion paused. “Allison, this isn’t the job for you. Everyone knows it. That is everyone, except you.” Marion lay back against the pillow. “Oh, Ally.” She sighed. “What are you going to do? Sandy is a great lady, but she’s not a charity. No one stays unless they work.” “I know.” Allison sat up

and wiped her wet cheeks with her fingers. “When I couldn’t find work, this seemed like a solution. I guess it’s not.” She adjusted the blanket to keep from exposing herself. “I’ll talk to Sandy and ask her if I can stay tonight. Tomorrow I’ll look for somewhere to live and figure out what I can do for money.” Keeping the blanket tucked around her. Allison stood from the bed

and picked clothing off the floor. “At least I haven’t ordered the wardrobe.” She fingered the soft velvet of the skirt in her hand then handed it to Marion. “I won’t need this.” “We’ll figure it out together.” She gave Allison an encouraging smile. “After you bathe. With that smell I can’t stay in this room another minute. ” Marion went to the water pitcher. “I’ll

return the favor,” she said, picking it up. “Obviously Mr. Clark had intended to stay with you.” She crinkled her nose. “I recognize the scent.” Marion returned a few minutes later splashing water in her haste to get back to Allison. “I have the greatest idea.” She set the pitcher next to the bowl. “It’s cold because there wasn’t any hot water on the stove.” She filled the large, ceramic dish.

“It’s been a busy night. I guess no one has had a chance to keep up with the demand.” “I don’t mind cold water,” Allison said. She was grateful for the chance to wash some of the fragrance from her skin. Between the tears, the heavy aroma, and the headache pounding through her temples, she was nauseous. “Well, I do. I admit it.”

Marion put her hand over her heart. “I love what I do. I won’t ever stop. I’m never getting married. Long story, but I’m never getting a baby either so I’ve got no reason not to lay down with whomever I want.” She put her hands on her hips. Her eyes brightened along with the excitement escalating her voice. “And it isn’t bragging to say I’m busy. So busy that I don’t have much time to

take care of myself. I deserve hot water and clean clothes. I want my sheets changed whenever they get dirty. I don’t care if that means twice a night.” She stomped her foot. “I need some pampering.” She put a washcloth into the water. “Will you work for me?” Marion handed her a damp cloth. “I know how much you earn. Sandy already takes so

much. You can’t support me, too.” She took the cloth and wiped her arms and neck. “You’re right. Not alone, I couldn’t. But if you took care of all of us girls, together we could.” Marion sat and took Allison’s hands in hers. “We all see something special in you. You’ve still got what we lost a long time ago. Seeing you throw away your life breaks my heart. If you stay here, you’ll never get

married. God forbid if you have a child. No one is going to want to raise a baby for you. Worst of all, you wouldn’t know who the father is.” Allison felt on the verge of tears again. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to leave, either. You’re the first real friend I’ve ever had. Sandy isn’t going to let me keep the room.” Marion shrugged. “Who

cares? Get dressed. If we can’t convince her that we need you, then you can sleep with me after I’m done for the night. We’ll figure out the details later. For now, let’s see who wants to hire you. I know I’m not the only one who hates fetching water to clean up.” A minute later, Allison was dressed. Marion took her by the hand and led her down the hall. “Lets see how many of us our willing

to spend a few coins for a little pampering.” Business had tapered off for the night and only a few gentlemen were in the parlor and most of the girls were in their rooms. Stopping at the first door, Marion gave a gentle knock. Cassie opened the door. Marion pushed inside and Allison followed. “We have a proposition.” An hour later, Marion,

Allison and several girls crowded into Sandy’s office. The only obstacle in their way was Sandy. Anyone who knew Sandy, realized she was a businesswoman first. Letting Allison stay would cut into her profits. The room represented potential income, but not if Allison wasn’t bedding men. Sandy listened, but continued to shake her head. “I’m not a charity.” She

sipped a cup of tea. “Girls, it’s been a long and tiring night. I don’t want to argue. You know the rules. We have contracts. I can’t justify the expenditure.” She sat behind her desk, removed her wirerimmed reading glasses, and messaged her temples. “Allison, you’re a lovely young woman.” She sighed. “I knew this wasn’t going to work. You don’t belong here. You need a nice husband and

a baby on each hip.” “She doesn’t have anywhere to go,” Marion said. “I’ve been with you a long time, Sandy. I’ve never wanted more than what I have right here. God knows it’s far better than where I came from. We both know how cruel life can be.” She pointed her finger at Allison. “I don’t want her to know,” she said. “We have a chance to do something right.” She

wiped a tear from her cheek. “Marion,” Sandy said, sharply inhaling. “Don’t cry. I’ve never seen you cry, and I’m not sure I want to now.” “If it’s the room, she can stay with me. If it’s money, don’t worry about it. I told you, the girls and I are going to give her a cut of our share. There isn’t any reason why this won’t work.” Sandy turned to Allison. “Aren’t you going to say

something?” “I understand your position. I’ll stay on and work just as everyone else.” “No!” Marion and Sandy said in unison. “I’m sorry about Mr. Clark. It’s going to be tougher than I thought.” “Well Allison, it doesn’t get any easier than Mr. Clark,” Sandy said. “I already decided you aren’t working for me.”

After what seemed like an eternity, Allison said, “Can I work for them? If it doesn’t work out, I’ll leave.” Sandy threw her hands in the air. “We’ll try it. Until I need your room, you can stay.” Marion and Allison hugged each other. Sandy came around the desk. They pulled her into the hug, too. “Now stop and settle down,” she chided. “Marion,

I leave it up to you to decide on Allison’s wages. She’s your employee.” She clapped her hands together. “Now get out of my office and get some sleep.” Marion and Allison left together with the other girls following. “I have a job,” Allison squealed. And first thing the following morning, Allison went to the kitchen to make sure there would be plenty of

hot water for everyone.

Chapter Four Allison found, for the first time in her life, a small family of friends. As the sun set behind the horizon and the men came in from the mines, Allison worked without a break. Between changing sheets and replacing dirty water, she helped Marion and the girls mend and clean their

clothes. “Sandy wants to see you,” Marion said, coming into her room. Allison had just tucked a fresh sheet onto the bed. She got off her knees and tightened the apron around her waist. To keep cool and to keep it from getting in the way, she kept her hair pulled high and pinned into a bun. She pushed a few stray tendrils behind her ear.

“Is she in her office?” “Actually, no.” Marion raised an eyebrow. “She’s in her bedroom. And by the look of her, she’s getting ready for a little business.” “Sandy doesn’t work. Not that way.” In the several weeks Allison had been at the brothel, she’d never seen Sandy anywhere but downstairs. She flirted, but drew the line at taking men to her bed for service.

“Oh, she has a few regulars. I haven’t seen her cowboy in a long time. I’ll bet it’s him. Now that’s a man I’d gladly take care of.” She fell back onto the bed. “Lord, have mercy on women. Men should not look that good.” “That good?” “Good doesn’t come close. We’ll all be happy tomorrow because Sandy is going to be in one hell of a

grand mood. If you want something, it’ll be the day to ask.” Allison laughed as she left the room. She made her way down the long corridor. Doors to bedrooms lined both sides of the hallway. Allison lightly knocked on Sandy’s door. “Come in,” Sandy said. “Good, I’m glad you hurried. I’m going to be busy for the

next couple of hours.” Scrutinizing herself in the mirror, Sandy added a little more rouge. “Occasionally I entertain certain gentlemen. I have a long history with his family. He’s had a run of bad luck lately.” “Marion said you still see a few.” “Honey, every woman has needs.” Sandy stood in front of the dresser mirror and fluffed her ruffles. “I used to

see his father.” “This gentleman you’re seeing tonight?” Sandy nodded. “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” Allison wondered why Sandy was confiding in her. “Will you put on one of Marion’s outfits?” Confusion clouded Allison’s thoughts. Did Sandy expect her to work? In the parlor? With the men?

Fear, stark and vivid, constricted her chest. The taste of bile rose into her throat. “What? Why?” “Calm down, Allison. You should know by now I feel the same way as Marion and the girls. We want you here. I thought you could linger downstairs as hostess. Play me for a few hours.” She shrugged. “I never like leaving the parlor unattended.”

“I’d love it. Dress up, have a sweet drink. One of those tall ones Cassie makes.” “Just one,” Sandy said. “You’ve proven you don’t handle alcohol well.” “I’ve only been sick twice. Both times Marion is to blame. She gave me too much, too fast.” “Three times in two weeks. One drink or forget the whole thing.” Allison sat in the giant

chair. “One drink.” “Don’t sit down.” Sandy took Allison’s hands and pulled her to her feet. “Go get dressed and get downstairs. I’ll see you in a few hours.” “This is going to be fun, right?” “Yes.” Sandy winked and pushed Allison out the room. Fifteen minutes later, Allison wore her favorite dress of Marion’s into the

parlor. She paused in front of the sconce mirror. The deep violet color enhanced her complexion and made her green eyes sparkle like emeralds. As she sipped her drink, she arched an eyebrow and tried to see herself as the men in the parlor did. With her corset pulled tight, her cleavage crested over the top. Pale candlelight made her skin appear creamy and flawless.

“Hello.” Allison turned at the familiar voice. Resonating in her dreams for weeks, the image of the man matching the voice filled her head. “Mr. Bester,” she stammered. “I see you found work.” His mouth twitched. His gaze left her face and traveled down her neck, locking on her bosom. Heat rushed through her body. She felt his gaze like a

branding iron, roaming over her flesh as if marking her as his. She couldn’t breathe. Her mouth was dry and her sex wet. With this man, she felt like a whore. “I’m curious how your travels have brought you here, but I’ve business to attend to.” He tipped his cowboy hat and disappeared up the stairs. When the dizziness cleared her mind, she upended her drink and

then set the empty glass on one of the small tables. “Allison, what did he say?” Marion grabbed her shoulders and spun her around. “Can you believe all the luck? Sandy will sleep with a smile on her face tonight.” “Sandy?” Allison asked in disbelief. “Mr. Bester is with Sandy right now?” Marion nodded. “Lucky woman.”

“He’s married with two children.” “Lower your voice!” she scolded. “Most of the men in here are married. I’m sure they don’t want to be reminded.” “I thought he was a nice man. We met at his ranch when I went there looking for work. I talked to his little girl. I brushed her hair.” “Get over it.” Marion’s voice was harsh. “The world

isn’t a pretty place. He comes in, only sees Sandy, and goes on his way without socializing with anyone else. I don’t know his story, and I don’t want to any more than you should. You work in a brothel cleaning up after whores. Be careful not to hang on your own hook.” As Allison worked, she couldn’t keep from watching the stairs to see how long TJ spent with Sandy. She told

herself the entire encounter disturbed her because TJ was a married man, the truth too difficult to believe. Just as it had been when she came face to face with him in the foyer of his home, she was attracted to him. The thought alone twisted her stomach into knots. The hour grew late, and Allison wondered if she had missed TJ when he left. The brothel was quiet and most of

the girls had retired for the evening. Allison went to the kitchen and set a fresh pot of coffee to brew. “You should be asleep.” Allison jumped at the sound of Sandy’s voice. She hadn’t heard anyone approach. “Hi,” she said, unable to look at Sandy. She didn’t want to see pleasure in her sated smile. “I just made a fresh pot of coffee. I’m going to my room.” Allison hurried

past. Sandy reached out and caught her by the arm. “Wait a minute.” Allison stopped but kept her eyes to the floor, focusing on a scuffmark. The glimpse she stole told her everything she needed to know. Sandy had the look of a woman who had been thoroughly ravished. After these weeks in the brothel, she recognized the telltale signs; untamed

hair, swollen lips, and flushed cheeks. “I’m tired.” “No, I think it’s something else and I’d like to know what’s bothering you. A few hours ago, you were humming like a bird.” Sandy lifted Allison’s face by the chin. “I go to work, and you look like you’ve lost your puppy.” Allison shrugged and pulled away from Sandy. “I’m just tired.”

“Listen little girl, I didn’t just fall off the back of a wagon. You’re mad at me, aren’t you?” Sandy laughed. “You’re giving me the cold shoulder. Oh, you are a breath of fresh air.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “Such an amusing notion. I am going to miss you.” Allison froze. She pushed too far and now Sandy intended to dismiss her. “I’m sorry. Marion

warned me to mind my own business. I know I have no right to judge Mr. Bester.” “TJ?” “I know he’s a man and has needs. I should be used to seeing married men patronizing the Dusty Rose.” She took a deep breath, but continued her defense. “I’ve met Mr. Bester.” “I know,” Sandy said, but Allison wasn’t listening. Her dismissal rang too loudly

in her ears. “And his children—he has the most extraordinary little girl. Smart, independent, all the qualities I admire in an adult in a sweet, sweet child. His son went to bed. I didn’t spend much time with him. His wife may not be the best housekeeper or mother.” She took a quick breath, but Sandy interrupted her. “He’s not married. Allison, you’re wrong. His

wife has been gone more than a year now.” Suddenly it all made sense. How could she have been so imperceptive? The dirty house, Sissy in her mothering role, and TJ getting his little boy ready for bed, and most of all his brusqueness whenever she mentioned his wife should have told her she assumed incorrectly. If TJ’s proximity hadn’t unnerved her, maybe

she would have paid more attention. It was hard enough remembering to breathe when he was in the room. Allison sat at the kitchen table while Sandy moved to the stove to pour each of them a cup of coffee. “TJ lost his wife just before last winter. He has his hands full with his ranch. You wouldn’t know it. He’s a devoted father. He shelters those children too much because he

doesn’t want them hurt. Losing Janelle was hard on everyone. He started coming in here a couple of months after the funeral.” She set the cup of coffee in front of Allison. “I can make him forget his problems and remind him he’s a man for an hour. He talks, I listen and then he goes back to his hectic life.” Sandy sat. “He comes to me because he’s a private man. He appreciates

that I don’t share his business with anyone.” Allison wrapped her hands around her coffee cup. “I’m so sorry.” She hesitantly met Sandy’s stare across the table. “I made a mistake. I’m not sure what to say. I shouldn’t have drawn conclusions. Please don’t make your decision final. I don’t want to lose my job. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“You misunderstand. I’m not mad at you, just the opposite. And that is why you can’t stay.” “What have I done? I thought you were happy with my position here. It seems harsh to let me go now.” “Maybe it is.” Sandy took a sip of coffee and shrugged. “I’ve made my decision, and I’m not inclined to change it. I saw you tonight. You were

uncomfortable even pretending to be a whore.” “I appreciate the time you’ve allowed me to stay.” Allison stood. In her haste, she bumped the table, causing her coffee to slosh out of her cup. “I’ll clean out my room and be on my way.” “Sit down, Allison. I’m not finished explaining myself.” Allison wiped tears from her cheek with the back of

her hand. “You deserve better than cleaning up after whores. I’m not one to ask favors of the gentlemen who patronize my business. I made an exception tonight. I spoke with TJ. He might’ve been hesitant at first, but he’s agreed to employ you at the ranch.” Allison’s breath hitched. “I can’t.” Unmarried, young women didn’t live with widowed men. She supposed

proper women didn’t work in brothels either. There was one enormous difference. The men in the brothel didn’t weaken her knees and make her breasts tingle. Her heartbeat escalated thinking of TJ alone in the big house on the hill. “Besides, I’ve already asked and he said no.” “He agreed when I asked him. He’s asleep in my bed. When he leaves, he is going

to take you with him.” Sandy stood and pulled Allison into a hug. “We’ll miss you,” she said, stepping back. “Don’t think of this as goodbye. I’ll expect you to visit whenever you come to town.” Sandy placed her hand on Allison’s cheek. “I chose this profession. I’m educated, and I know how to make money. Children were never part of my plan. But I’d like to believe that if I would have

had a daughter, she would’ve been like you.” “You’ve shown me more love than my mother ever did.” Her mother had only ever wanted her to marry for money and to take a step up the social ladder. Never had she concerned herself with Allison’s happiness. “I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me.” “Okay, enough of this sentimental fluff. Go get your

belongings and say goodbye to your friends. They’ll all want to wish you luck.” * * * * * Allison perched next to TJ Bester on the bench of his buckboard. Her bag sat along with the supplies he’d come to town to purchase. The wagon pulled out of Copper City. They traveled in moonlit darkness. It would be another hour before first light, until then, they were alone

with the moon, the stars, and the blackness of the forest around them. Allison had been on this journey once before. She knew how long she would be sitting next to this extremely quiet and private man. At least when she’d traveled with Train, there had been enjoyable conversation to help pass the time. “I’ll miss Sandy and the girls,” she said.

TJ looked in her direction, but didn’t speak. His eyes revealed nothing of his thoughts. Curiosity nearly drove her to ask. Instead, she chewed the inside of her cheek. The horses kept a rhythm and each step on the hard ground made Allison’s bottom ache. Periodically, she’d look at TJ to see if he showed the same discomfort. His eyes never left the road,

and he made no gestures to say he’d like to have a conversation. She wanted to ask him if this was how their working relationship would be. Before, when she’d seen him in his home with his children, he seemed relaxed and friendly. He’d been approachable. The tight line of his mouth now contradicted the man she’d met before. Another hour passed in

silence. If Allison asked a question, TJ would respond with a nod or shake of his head. This was ridiculous. Sandy had assured her that he was agreeable to her employment. Yet, he hadn’t spoken to her. “Perhaps now would be a good time for us to discuss my responsibilities.” TJ growled low and his hands tightened on the reins. What before lacked any

expression, now clearly looked annoyed. “I haven’t had much time to think about it.” “If you didn’t want to hire me, you could have said no.” “Sandy never asks for anything. Wasn’t about to say no the first time I could pay her back some for what she does for me.” “I thought you paid when services were rendered,” she

mumbled. When TJ didn’t respond, she wondered if he heard her. He didn’t seem like a man of patience. If she wanted to stay at the Bester Ranch, she suspected she was going to have to abide by certain rules. Train intimated as much on her first attempt at employment. TJ pulled the canteen from under his seat and took a large swallow before

handing it to her. Allison took the canteen. She trembled from the touch of his hand when it brushed against hers. Apprehensive and at the same time desperate, she wanted to work for him. Just work, she reminded herself. She didn’t need him to see her eagerness to please, giving him the wrong idea. She did not intend to fill Sandy’s position. She closed her eyes.

She didn’t even want to think about those positions. It caused an unwelcomed warming heat between her legs. Regardless of how the opportunity arose, she was determined to make the most of her new job. Without much experience in the kitchen, she knew that would be her biggest challenge. The children and the cleaning would be a snap. When she

was through with the floors, they would shine. The windows would sparkle. When he came home for the day from whatever it was he did at the ranch, the children would be clean and fed. Truthfully, she didn’t have much exposure to country life. Living in Copper City was rural compared to life in Boston. “You’ll have the room you slept in when you were at

the house before,” he said. “I’m concerned about Sissy. She likes to take care of me, and I’m not sure how receptive she’ll be to another woman moving into the house. She’s not over the loss of her mother, and I don’t want her hurting.” “I promise I’ll be careful with her feelings. Until she lets me know differently, I won’t attempt to take over any of her duties.”

“Including Michael. We call him Tiger. She’s taken over the mothering. Don’t push her to give that up.” He growled again and ran his hand through his hair. “I wish I could’ve prepared her for this.” She clenched her hands in her lap. “A few weeks ago, my employment wasn’t an option. Are you changing your mind just for Sandy?” “Yep. I wouldn’t have

brought you out to the ranch. It’s going to be disruptive. Too disruptive,” he mumbled. “So yes, Sandy is the only reason you’ve got the job. Whether or not you keep it, is up to you. As long as you know and follow my rules, we’ll get along fine.” She knew it. There were bound to be lots of rules. Nothing new there. Her mother reigned as queen of rules. It seemed TJ intended

to be king. She’d learn to be a loyal subject, unless she wanted a life in a brothel. TJ watched her face. She was an oddity. He didn’t have to ask what she was thinking. It clearly expressed in the tilt of her eyebrows and the curve of her mouth. He had no business thinking about her mouth. Lips like velvet, soft in appearance. TJ had never seen a

woman like Allison before. When she had shown up on his doorstep, he’d wondered if he’d ever see her again. He hadn’t liked the look of her then and he liked it even less now. Life was comfortable with his visits to Sandy and the memory of his wife keeping him warm at night. His wife had been the only woman who’d ever stirred him. He neither pined for nor

wanted another woman crashing into his life. But like a head-on collision between two trains, he could feel the tension tightening between him and his new hire. TJ was a good judge of people, just one of the reasons contributing to his success. He recognized a trustworthy individual. Ms. Lake, he decided, was just the kind of woman he could find himself in trouble with. The

last thing he wanted was an entanglement. “Do you need a rest?” TJ asked. The sun blazed directly above them. Good weather promised around the corner. Afternoons finally felt the warmth of the sun. Trees budded and spring green bloomed where snow melted. In the mountain passes, the wind still whipped and the snow still sparkled, but there was definite evidence that the

time for change had come. Allison nodded and TJ pulled the rig into a clearing. She excused herself into the nearby trees. When she returned, TJ had built a fire and heated water for coffee. “Have you always lived in Montana?” He liked the way she tucked her legs underneath her skirt when she sat near him on the ground. “I’ve lived my whole life in this

valley.” He returned her smile. “It’s my home.” They talked about life in Montana while they sipped coffee and ate. “We’ll be home for supper. Cake does all the cooking for the help.” “Cake? Does anyone have a traditional name at your ranch?” “Ranch life is lonely. Most of the men don’t have families and of the ones that do, some live on the property

and others go home on Sunday. We’re a family and naturally everyone earns a nickname. Wouldn’t surprise me if they give you one on the first day.” Allison raised her eyebrows, and her mouth slowly spread into a smile. “And what name do you think they’ll give me?” TJ’s neck grew hot. He could feel the red racing into his cheeks. He liked the

twinkle in her eye. He needed to stop acknowledging the parts he liked, and refocus on the fact that he didn’t want her at the ranch. He ought to stop trying to convince himself. If he didn’t want her at the ranch, she wouldn’t be going, favor to Sandy be damned. Allison laughed. “I don’t care if the world knows I worked in a brothel. I wasn’t a whore. So, I don’t have

anything to be ashamed of.” “No one will comment about your previous employment.” TJ’s stern voice brooked no argument. “Sandy told me as much as I need to know of your history. Boston, young, alone, and as far as she is concerned, you’re too good for a whorehouse. She doesn’t warm up to strangers the way she did to you. I admit I’m intrigued to discover the

fascination.” With that TJ stood. He took the canteen, dumped the water, extinguishing the fire. “Time to go.” Allison gathered her skirts. TJ held his hand out, helping her onto the buckboard. The calloused touch of his fingers against the tender flesh of her arm caused her to stumble with her footing.

“Careful.” The subtleness of his voice, close to her ear, made her shiver with awareness. “Thank you,” she said, taking her seat. TJ vaulted to the buckboard and sat beside her. They continued to the ranch. Like a watercolor painting, the dusky sky was streaked with hues of copper and pink. The ranch house appeared majestic on the

canvas of colors. On the other hand, TJ’s posture stiffened and eyes darkened like the approach of a winter storm. “I’ll explain your presence to Sissy tomorrow. Tonight let her believe you’re visiting.” “Do you really think she’ll be upset?” Allison asked. Sissy was just a child. Adults made decisions and children obeyed. At least, when she was growing up her

mother dictated the movements of the home. “I honestly don’t know what she’ll say. I figure she’ll be easier to talk to if I take her for a horseback ride in the morning. Get Tiger his breakfast, and we’ll meet up with you midday.” Allison followed TJ into the house. Lamps blazed. A man Allison hadn’t met before sat in the living room with the children. When Sissy

saw her father, she squealed and ran into his arms. She had a smile for Allison and a nod of acknowledgement. “I remember you,” Sissy said. “I remember you, too. It’s nice to see you again.” TJ went to his son. He picked him up and gave him a hug. “Ms. Lake decided to come for a visit.” The man who’d been watching the children looked

amused as he excused himself. “See you in the morning, Boss.” “Thanks, Charlie.” TJ and Allison took the children into the kitchen. Supper warmed on the stove and the house smelled of beef stew. Allison could imagine evenings like this every night. TJ coming home from work, only she would have prepared the meal, and the house would be neat and tidy

instead of dusty and in need of cleaning. “Are you hungry,” he asked coming up behind her. If she expected to remain unflustered in TJ’s company, she had to get over the butterflies flitting about in her stomach. Otherwise, she was going to find it difficult to carry a conversation. “Yes,” she said, managing not to squeak. “Starving, actually.”

Chapter Five The sound of a rooster roused Allison from a fitful slumber. Granted, she hadn’t had long to adjust to the brothel, nonetheless, it had become home. Sleeping in a strange bed without the bustle of town nightlife outside her window made her strangely uncomfortable—isolated.

The Bester Ranch had been her dream, but nothing thus far had gone as she imagined. She wasn’t exactly sure what the day would bring, but she was determined to be ready. Rugs lined the wood floor. Her feet crushed the soft texture as she made her way to the dresser. Her body shook uncontrollably in the chilled room. Fumbling for the

matches, she finally lit the lamp. She quickly dressed in a plain brown dress that served well for cleaning. She stood at the window and watched the sun peak over the mountains on the horizon as she pulled her hair into a bun. She turned at a soft knocking on the door. “Come in.” She stood straight and smoothed the folds of her skirt knowing it would be TJ. Breathing in,

she prepared to face the man who’d invaded her dreams most of the night. “Good morning.” The scent of wood and flannel followed him into the room. It mingled with the smell of rose lotion she wore. “How did you sleep?” “It always takes a few days to adjust to new surroundings. I’m sure it’ll improve.”

TJ slid his hands into the front pockets of his work jeans. “We’ve got a problem with one of the irrigation canals. I’ll be in the fields most of the day.” Why did he suddenly feel the need to explain his whereabouts? She looked at him with a smile on her lips, almost as if she knew the images in his mind. But of course, that wasn’t the case because if she could, he was sure to feel the

sting of her hand across his face. The dress she wore clung to her small frame and gave a graceful swell to her hips. He wondered how he could have ever thought she was a well-fed girl. Her feminine figure was not as he remembered. “I hope it isn’t serious.” “The children will be up soon. I’m going to talk with Sissy, but I don’t have time this morning. Can you keep

the conversation simple?” She nodded. “Don’t give anything away about your permanent position here. I’ll explain it. Just make yourself comfortable, and we’ll talk about how we proceed when I get home tonight.” “Can I get you coffee before you go?” TJ shook his head. “No, I drink coffee with the men.”

Allison followed TJ out of the room and watched as he headed down the stairs. His boots landed hard on each step. “I’ll keep Train close to the house,” he said over his shoulder. “If you need wood or anything, he’ll be happy to help.” Allison stood at the top of the stairs. TJ’s footfalls trailed through the kitchen and disappeared. The back

door shut and he was gone. “Where’s Papa going?” Sissy asked, rubbing sleep from her eyes. “He went to work. How about some breakfast?” And with that Allison began her first day of work. She started in the kitchen. Sissy sat on the counter and chattered. Michael didn’t seem to mind sitting in the wooden highchair. She polished the

glass windows until the sun reflected a clear luster. Curtains, once mustard yellow, were washed, pressed, and now the color of summer sunflowers. “It’s going to take a bit longer than I had originally thought,” she said to Sissy. “But I think we’ll eventually get this place as shiny as a new penny.” When she first put water on the floor, it turned the dust

to mud. She scrubbed with a bristle bush and hot water until skin started to peel from her knuckles. “When my papa gets cuts on his hands he has me wrap them in clean linen.” Sissy took Allison by the skirt and led her to the pantry. “Do they hurt?” Sissy instructed Allison to sit in a chair while she took strips of linen and carefully wrapped each of Allison’s fingers.

“Not since the bleeding stopped.” She smiled at the top of the child’s head. Sissy’s fingers gently tied knots in the bandages. “Hi.” Train stood in the doorway of the pantry holding his hat in his hands. “How’s it going? Oh shit!” His smile dissolved into a frown when he looked at the little girl. “Sis, what happened?” He threw his hat to the counter and hurried to

Allison’s side were he knelt and examined the fingers Sissy hadn’t yet bandaged. “I mean—” He nervously glanced from Allison to Sissy. “Sorry for the cussin’, ma’am. Do you need a doctor?” “Of course not.” She stood and gave Sissy a gentle pat on her cheek to say thank you. “Now get out of this clean kitchen with those dirty boots. I’m damaged enough

for one day without having to redo what’s already done.” She scooted Train toward the door. “And I’d appreciate your discretion about my injuries. I don’t need TJ getting mad because of a few blisters and a scratch.” “Whatever you say.” He tipped his hat and bowed. Allison thought of Marion when Train smiled. Marion could tell the difference between a smile of friendship,

and one that asked a question of a woman. Allison not only wanted to recognize the difference, but when she looked at TJ, she wanted to be able to deliver the one that said friendship. She worried the one she wore revealed the secret yearnings driving her to distraction. She couldn’t help wondering how many women had fallen into TJ’s bed. Shaking her head, she

turned her attention back to Train. “Thank you for stopping by. Did you need something?” He gave her a crooked smile. “Nope, just checking in. If you need me, give a holler. I’ll be close enough to hear.” He winked, turned, and left. Allison fixed Sissy and Michael lunch before tackling her next project. The house had been neglected for the

year and a half TJ’s wife had been deceased, but it was clear the children hadn’t been. TJ made sure they wore clean clothing. Some of Sissy dresses had been satisfactorily mended even if the stitches weren’t straight. “How come you’re doing chores?” Sissy sat on her bed and combed the hair of her doll. “Company isn’t supposed to clean.” “I know guests usually

don’t clean the house. I thought I might stay a while. Is that all right with you?” Sissy shrugged. “What’s your doll’s name?” Allison wiped the top of the dresser. “I had a doll named Cocoa when I was about your age. My mother was very strict about sweets. I loved sugar, especially chocolate. Probably because I wasn’t allowed to have any except on special occasions.

At the time, I thought my mother was mean. Now I’m grateful. I still have all my teeth. See.” Allison smiled wide. “I don’t got a mother.” Allison stopped cleaning and sat on the bed. “I know.” She reached out and touched Sissy’s hair, letting a silky tendril curl around her finger. “I thought Papa was bringing you home to be my mama,” Sissy said in a soft

whisper. “When you were here before I told him I thought you were real nice. He said you were pretty, too.” Allison was alarmed… then thrilled at hearing those words. “Did your father say anything else?” Sissy smiled and nodded her head. “I heard Papa talkin’ to Train about the wiles of women. It must hurt because Papa said he tried to avoid it.”

“He thought that about me? I’ve never used feminine wiles.” She contemplated her behavior with TJ. “Well, maybe I came close with Train when I was looking for a ride to the ranch in two feet of snow.” She looked down at Sissy who sat curiously watching her. Sissy continued, “Train said he ain’t never seen a woman as pretty as you and that you could give him wiles

if you had the mind to.” Allison sucked in her breath. “Papa told him he didn’t know what he was asking for. That’s how I figured it must hurt to get the wiles. I’m never going to be a woman. There’s my brother.” She jumped from the bed and hurried from the room to get Michael up from his nap. * * * * * Well past supper, the sun

blazed low in the West. Allison and the children were outside when TJ finally walked up to the house. Sissy jumped rope and Michael played with his wooden toys in the dirt of a neglected flowerbed. There was crispness to the air, but one that refreshed rather than chilled. Allison sat on the bottom step of the porch as TJ approached. “Hungry?” she

asked. TJ shook his head. “The children have already eaten. There’s chicken on the stove. I kept it warm.” “You didn’t need to do that,” he said without looking at her. “I thought the children could play for a while before their bath.” He stood close to her keeping his eyes on Sissy as

she did cartwheels across the yard. “I don’t expect you to work from sunup until sundown for me, either. I’ll get Sissy and Tiger ready for bed.” He walked past her, up the steps, and called for the children to come into the house. Suddenly Allison was alone. Her day had been busy. Trying to manage the children and the housework proved more difficult than

she’d expected. Now with the quiet evening, she could relax. She hadn’t realized just how exhausted she was. The fatigued muscles in her legs burned when she climbed the stairs and retired to her room. It wasn’t yet dark when she went to bed, preparing for another night of restless dreams about a certain rancher with wide shoulders that flexed beneath worn-thin homespun. With such an

inept servant to run his home, it was no wonder he was churlish. At least asleep, she was safe to dream of him as the tempting man from the brothel, the one that took a whore—like he believed her to be—to bed. * * * * * In the morning, Allison woke first. The sun still slept as well as the roosters, the crickets, and the family. It was perfect. Carrying the

lantern from her room, she made her way down the stairs, careful not to cause them to creak. Once in the kitchen, she breathed a little easier. She glanced at the clock. She hadn’t been up at three-thirty in the morning on many occasions. After tossing a few logs into the stove, she set the coffeepot on to heat. While the coffee simmered, Allison threw together a quick batch of

yeast dough and made rolls. It surprised her that she remembered the simple things she’d seen done a thousand times in her own home as a child. Hopefully, she wasn’t forgetting any of the steps for sweet bread. She almost wept remembering the delicious aroma. During the cold months, she loved hot bread and apple cider. “Couldn’t you sleep?” “Aye!” Allison let out a

little scream. She hadn’t heard TJ approach. “I’m sorry.” She clutched the fabric at her neck. Her heart pounded. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” “I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. “I didn’t expect you to be up. I saw the light and wondered if something was wrong. Is it your hands?” “No, and I told Train not to tell you. Just a couple of scratches.” Allison stuffed

her hands into the pockets of her apron. “I made coffee. Would you like a cup?” TJ nodded and then sat at the table. The lantern offered a modest amount of light to the room. Dancing shadows played tricks with TJ’s mind, shifting the angles of Allison’s face. The belt of her apron silhouetted a trim waist, and the thin fabric of

her dress molded to her shoulders. He didn’t like his body’s response. His cock thickened and his heart skipped into a quicker tempo. “Sissy told me she bandaged you up. I talked with her last night.” TJ ran his hands through his hair. “She’s confused. She told me mamas clean the house. She’s a bit smitten with you. It hasn’t been easy on her since Janelle died. I guess I should

be grateful Michael is too young to remember.” Allison set two cups of coffee on the table and then sat across from him. “For what it’s worth, they seem well-adjusted.” Allison pushed a stray tendril of hair from her face. TJ wondered how the silky tresses would feel running through his fingers. When she looked back at him, a flash of heat burned in

his gut. He shouldn’t stare, but was powerless to turn away. A moment passed. Young and beautiful, like Janelle had been when he married her. With that, the spell weaving around them broke. Reality crashed into his thoughts. “I think I’ll try and go back to bed,” he said, pushing the chair from the table. As he was about to leave the kitchen, he turned.

“Goodnight.” “I’m up for the day. I’m making sweet bread.” “Then I think I’ll eat breakfast with the kids.” Allison smiled. “Then I’ll see you in a couple hours.” TJ nodded and left the room. Allison spent the next hour getting ready for the day. She braided her hair and changed into a yellow dress

embroidered with small cranberry colored flowers. She’d purchased the dress while working at the brothel. Perhaps it was a bit much for house cleaning, but for reasons she wasn’t ready to admit, she wanted to look nice. TJ returned to the kitchen before the children woke. He sat at the table. Allison, not yet familiar where Janelle kept supplies, attempted to

locate certain items she needed. But with TJ watching her, her palms grew damp. Anxiety had her blood pumping and her nerves on edge. Taking steady breaths, she maintained outward composure. At least, she hoped TJ wasn’t aware of her responses to him. “Where’s your family?” he asked. The only sounds in the kitchen were her nervously

dropping dishes. “Boston.” She stood on a small step stool to look in the cupboards just out of her reach. “My father made his fortune, then quit working. I don’t think working ever crossed my mother’s mind. She would absolutely forbid my being here. I have two brothers.” She sighed and her shoulders relaxed. “I wonder if my mother has married them off. Probably,” she said

more to herself. “I see you’re opposed to marriage.” TJ’s eyebrow rose. “I didn’t say that.” Allison wished she had kept her mouth shut. This wasn’t a topic she wanted to discuss. “I’m sure marriage is a fine institution. I’m not sure if I want to be institutionalized.” She got down from the stepstool with a tarnished silver bowl. TJ laughed. “I see there’s

more to you than I thought.” “Not much more.” Any secrets she carried would stay hidden. Avoiding his probing glances, she took the coffee from the stove. “Has Miss Allison been soured on love?” After she topped off his coffee, he took a sip. “How about you? It’s been more than a year. Are you going to look for love again?” She regretted the

words as soon as they were out of her mouth. She sounded too eager for his reply. She told herself she wasn’t asking because of her own interests, only curious about TJ. Still a young man, TJ’s choice to be alone made Allison sorry for him. The expression on her face must have revealed her thoughts. The smile that had played across his features only a moment before changed into

a pinched grimace. “I’m staying faithful to my wife.” “What about Sandy?” TJ stood abruptly, scraping his chair along the floor. “Janelle and I have two children. I’m here and she’s in heaven. We’re still raising them together. Beyond that, it isn’t any of your business. Sandy is strictly professional. She attends to a man’s needs. And that has nothing to do

with love.” Sissy walked into the room rubbing her eyes. “Papa,” she said. “Are you hungry?” “Yep, but Allison’s taken care of breakfast for us this morning. She’s made sweet bread.” He kissed her forehead before pulling out a chair for her. “I think it’s a good idea for Allison to make breakfast now that she’s staying with us.”

Allison tried to look busy, filling a bowl in the sink with water. She tossed more wood into the stove and filled a glass with milk for Sissy. “I hear Michael,” she said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” TJ thanked her with his eyes. She felt a jolt at the intimate exchange. It wasn’t smart for her to develop a personal attachment to TJ or his children. However, in one day, she knew she didn’t

want to leave. Maybe she wouldn’t have to if TJ truly never wanted another wife. As long as Sandy did her job, she could keep hers. The thought comforted…and ripped at her heart. * * * * * The hours passed in a blur. Allison would finish one task to discover still more work to do. She had daily chores; laundry, dishes, and care of the children. Cleaning

from room to room, her arms tired from lugging the heavy bucket around the house. By the end of the day, her back hunched from the strain. She was actually grateful TJ planned to bathe the kids. She didn’t have an ounce of strength left in her to lift the children into the tub. TJ returned after supper. He ushered the children up the stairs for a bath while she stayed in the kitchen cleaning

the dishes. She could hear Sissy laughing and TJ’s scolding. Allison couldn’t resist sneaking up the stairs to see about the commotion. Tiptoeing down the hall, she stopped and listened at the door. Sissy chattered endlessly. “Hold still,” TJ said to Michael. “You’ll get soap in your eyes. Sissy, would you stop making him splash.” Allison peeked into the

room. TJ leaned over the tub pouring water over Michael’s head to rinse the soap. TJ’s soaked shirt clung to his back, revealing every muscle. Dizziness clouded her mind. Her hands tightened into fists at her side. Why couldn’t TJ have been an old rancher? She didn’t like the way her tongue anticipated the taste of his. Living at the Dusty Rose, she’d learned plenty. She’d

never been with a man. Yet, she knew she wanted TJ. Stepping out of view, she closed her eyes and listened to the gentle tone he used with the children. She pressed her thighs together wishing away the persistent ache between her legs. “Your turn, Sis.” Water sloshed. Allison hurried back down the stairs to the kitchen. Later that night, TJ sat before the fire reading a

story. Sissy and Michael snuggled against him, one on each side. “If you don’t have anything else for me to do, I thought I’d take a bath and go to bed.” Allison chewed her bottom lip. Those words brought forth carnal thoughts. TJ just smiled, nodded, and then went back to reading. Allison hurried up the stairs and into the bathroom. She stood before the tub and

let her dress slip from her shoulders, dropping to her feet in a crumpled pile. Steam rose from the hot water in the large claw footed tub. Perhaps Allison should have asked, but the temptation was too great. She took a small amount of perfumed oil she’d found while cleaning and poured it into the water. She felt deliciously naughty as she sank into the water up to her neck. Her

muscles turned to butter as the hot water worked like magic and she slowly drifted off to sleep. A light tapping at the door brought her out of her reverie. “Yes?” She sat up in the darkened bathroom. Water sloshed onto the floor. Her skin wrinkled, and the water had grown cold. How long had she been in the bath? The sun had set and a chill drifted through the

room. “I was beginning to worry.” TJ’s voice echoed from the hallway. “It’s late and you’ve been in there a long time. Do you need help?” “No,” she said, embarrassed. “I fell asleep. Now it’s dark and I can’t see a thing.” “I’ll get you a lantern.” His footsteps retreated. Her hands fumbled along

the floor looking for a towel. “Allison, I’ve got a lantern. Do you want me to leave it in the hallway?” Allison didn’t say anything. Her mind raced to find a solution to her dilemma. The distance between her and the light under the door was too far for her to navigate in the dark. TJ asked her again. “I still can’t see.” “Do you want me to

open the door?” “No!” she shrieked. “I’m still in the tub.” TJ laughed. “You can’t stay in there until sunup. I’m going to open the door and bring you the lantern.” She slumped deeper into the cold water. Her teeth began to chatter. “Promise not to look.” The door slowly opened. Soft yellow light spilled into the room. Mirrors on the

walls reflected the glow. “Hurry,” she pleaded to him. “I’m humiliated enough.” Allison snapped her eyes closed, pulled her legs tight to her chest and rested her forehead on her knees. TJ chuckled as he set the lantern on the counter. “I’ll see you downstairs.” The door softly closed. Allison scrambled from the cold water, quickly dried and rushed to her room. She

dressed in a warm, full-length flannel nightgown and pulled on heavy wool socks before making her way to the kitchen. TJ stood from the table when she entered the room. “Coffee?” He didn’t wait for her reply. After pouring her a cup, he set it on the table. Allison took a sip. “Thank you. I’m so embarrassed.” She hung her head and looked into the dark

brew swirling in her cup. “It’s not your fault. You’ve been working too hard. Sleep was bound to catch up with you.” TJ set a plate of cookies Allison had made on the table, and then sat across from her. “You surprise me by how quickly you adapt to your surroundings. The children have taken to you, and I guess I didn’t realize how I had neglected the house.”

“Important thing is that you haven’t neglected the children. They’re wonderful.” “Thanks.” A light blush tinted his sun-bronzed flesh. “I was attempting to give you the compliment. I admit, I’m impressed with the way you’ve taken on the house chores.” “Thank you,” she said, taking a cookie from the plate. She couldn’t have stopped the smile spreading

across her face even if she’d wanted to. “I confess. I don’t have much domestic experience. It’s been the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.” She shrugged her shoulders. “That probably doesn’t say much considering my work history.” TJ laughed as he leaned back in his chair. “I’m glad to hear you like my employment better than Sandy’s.” He scooted his chair back from

the table and stretched his arms over his head. His muscles strained against the fabric of his shirt. The same shirt she’d seen pasted to his body as he bathed the children. “Get some sleep,” he said, standing. “And tomorrow take it easy. You don’t have to fix my life overnight, Miss Allison.” He stepped away from the table, gave her a wink, and left the room.

Chapter Six Life on the ranch, Allison soon discovered, became easier once she settled into a routine. Laundry in the morning, baking in the evenings as not to get the kitchen unbearable hot, and the everyday chores around the house left few spare moments for her to wish for

the niceties of Boston and city life. Today Sissy promised to help her plant a vegetable garden. There was a large patch of soil not far from the house. Allison reasoned that must have been its purpose at one time. “Get your shoes, Sissy. We’re going for a walk.” Allison put Michael’s shoes on and then helped him from the chair. “If we’re going to

put in a garden we need to find someone who knows how to help us. I think I know just the person.” “Papa knows how to plant a garden. He knows how to do everything,” she said proudly. “I’m sure he does, but I think he has more important things to do.” She had a child by each hand as they walked out the door. “Go slow so Michael can keep up.”

The breeze from the south blew warm on their faces. The sun’s first rays were starting to reach over the evergreen covered mountains. Not a cloud in the sky detracted from the ice blue color overhead. Allison inhaled deeply. Even the air smelled clean. Dust rose around her ankles as she crossed the distance to the shack. Halfway there she had to

carry Michael. His little legs couldn’t keep up the pace. Sissy skipped along, stopping every time a rock worth kicking lay in her path. They were at the door of the shack, and Allison had already begun to work up a sweat. She bent to put Michael down. When his feet touched the ground, he held his arms out to be picked up again. “Up, Mama.” Allison froze. Her chest

seemed to squeeze the air from her lungs as her hand covered her mouth. “What did you say?” She leaned in closer as if that would help her discern what he was saying. Tears welled in his eyes. “He wants you to carry him,” Sissy repeated. “I understand that. I want him to repeat what he said. I want to make sure I understood correctly. Sissy,

did you hear what he said?” “Yep, he called you mama.” She put her palm to her forehead. “Oh dear, that’s what I thought.” She leaned down to Michael and wrapped her arms around him. He clung to her neck as she lifted him. How do I make him understand? Sissy supplied the answer. “You could be his mama if you wanted. He was

only a baby when my mama died.” Sissy pulled opened the door and ran into the shack leaving Allison to follow. Allison wasn’t surprised Sissy felt at home in the shack. She should after all the time she spent there while her father ran the ranch. It seemed everyone enjoyed playing a hand in raising the Bester children. Cake, the cook, handed

Sissy sweet things to eat. Michael had enough of being held and now wanted to be with his sister. “Would you like Cake to feed you, too?” She put Michael down. She smiled as he went to Cake. “You won’t spoil their lunch. They’ve already eaten.” “Hello, Miss Allison.” Train approached, tipping his cowboy hat. Allison smiled. Train had proved to be a good friend.

He knew her awkward arrangement leading to employment at the ranch. So far, he’d kept the entire situation quiet. She was grateful for his discretion. The last thing she needed was for one of the men at the ranch to think she had interest in her previous business. In town, she knew most people thought she was a whore. Who could blame them? She worked in a brothel.

“I want to plant a garden. There’s a marked patch of ground behind the house. I assume Mrs. Bester planted one there previously. I don’t know much about gardening. I don’t even know where to start.” Train bent and Sissy jumped onto his back. “Watch the hat,” he said. Sissy wrapped her legs around Train’s waist and her arm around his neck. Then

she took his hat and put it on. “Mama.” Michael pulled at Allison’s dress and lifted his arms. Train and Allison stared at each other. The moment grew heavy. “I didn’t encourage this,” she finally said. “If I were you, I think I’d do plenty to stop it.” She nodded and they left the shack. * * * * *

Train worked up a sweat in the garden. Michael played in the dirt while Sissy played house with her doll, bored with digging in the dirt. “Something on your mind?” he asked before he took a drink of water from his canteen. Allison smiled and took the outstretched canteen from him. “Lost in thought, I guess. I like it here.” She leaned against her shovel and

scrutinized Train. “My family insisted a person be called by their full name. I feel a little silly calling you Train. Would you be uncomfortable if I call you by your given name?” “I’d answer to any name you wanted. My mother saw fit to call me Joseph.” “Thank you, Joseph. You’re the only person I’ve gotten to know here at the ranch besides TJ. He’s always busy and doesn’t much care

for socializing. I hardly see him during the day and when he gets home, he spends time with the children. I leave them alone and stay in my room.” Her shoulders relaxed. “I probably sound like I’m whining.” “Maybe you need to have a little fun, laugh, and forget you’re living on a ranch without much female company.” “You’re most certainly

right. One may not know it, but life in a brothel is quite fun. Perhaps not during working hours, but at other times.” “Nothing against the ladies you used to associate with at the Dusty Rose, but that kind of working girl never held much appeal for me.” He avoided looking at Allison. “It didn’t hold much appeal for me, either. I

suppose that’s why I’m so grateful to TJ.” Allison continued to work the hard soil alongside Train. The scorching sun rose high above them. Wearing a long skirt, she was hot. Sweat dripped between her breasts. Hair clung to the nape of her neck. “You worried?” Train asked while making rows for the seeds. Allison stopped working

and wiped sweat from her brow with the sleeve of her dress. “No, I think with your help I’ll get the garden done. Thank you again. I never dreamed it was going to be this hard. The ground is like rock.” Train chuckled. “I was referring to your being in the house alone tonight. TJ asked me to keep an eye on the place while he’s gone to town. Usually I go with him,

but this time I think he had some personal business to take care of.” Allison’s heart skipped a beat. Personal business, she heard TJ use that phrase before. Never would she forget the day he saw Sandy, the day her life changed by coming to the ranch. Hot tears filled her eyes. She had to blink several times. “I see. He didn’t tell me he wouldn’t be home tonight.”

“TJ’s forgetful about checking in when he’s busy. It must have slipped his mind. Should make you happy to know he trusts you with the youngins.” Allison still hadn’t resumed working the soil. “I am and no, I’m not nervous about being alone.” She stumbled over the words. Her now queasy stomach rolled. The impact of Train’s words echoed in her mind. She had

no right to be upset that TJ went to the Dusty Rose, to Sandy. Yet, it hurt to hear. “TJ doesn’t owe me an explanation for his whereabouts, but the children would’ve wondered why he wasn’t home to put them to bed. I’m usually done with my responsibilities after supper.” She tilted her head and smiled at Train. “Since he won’t be home for supper, how would you like to join

me and the children?” He smiled and tipped his hat. “Don’t mind if I do.” * * * * * Allison’s head pounded as she prepared supper for Train. Although he was attractive, kind, and a gentleman, she couldn’t help noticing that the terribly worrisome butterflies she had every time TJ entered the room were absent. “Need some help?” he

asked with his hat in his hands. Allison dropped the spoon she held. Train wasn’t wearing his customary jeans and loose fitting shirt. Instead, he was dressed in form-fitting, black trousers and a white buttondown cowboy shirt. Still slightly damp from a recent bath, his hair combed in a wave away from his face. His gaze took a long

stroll up her body, and when their eyes met, she liked the way his sparkled with appreciation. The light summer skirt she wore fluttered about her legs and her blouse fit loose. “Good evening, Joseph. Supper is ready.” She nodded toward the table. “Please, sit down.” Sissy and Michael already sat in their chairs. Train pulled out a chair

and was about to sit when Sissy spoke. “That’s my papa’s chair. You can sit over there.” She pointed to the chair across from Allison’s usual place. Train obliged without complaint. “I can’t remember the last time I had the pleasure of dining with two lovely, young ladies.” Sissy giggled and Allison set the last of the meal on the table. “I should have been

forthright about my cooking skills. I’m getting better. I made my specialty, cornbread and beef stew.” “It smells delicious.” Allison smiled and relaxed. “I hope you like it.” Train thrilled knowing Allison tried to impress him with supper. Guess he’d hidden his feelings better than he thought he had. Seemed like he’d never get the chance

to be with her. Food, planting a garden, hell she could ask him to do anything and he would. But since coming to the ranch, she mostly shut herself up in the house. He assumed she was trying to impress TJ. And he wasn’t the only one noticing. In fact, TJ seemed to be the only person ignoring her efforts. The men in the shack noticed. Cake noticed. He noticed. “Looks good.”

“Let’s hope it tastes as good.” She smiled and joined them at the table. As supper progressed, Michael made a mess. He had food in his hair, down his front and enjoyed dropping potatoes from the stew onto the floor with a plop. Sissy chattered with barely a break. Train didn’t mind the craziness and countless questions. He liked Allison. Seeing her with the children,

fixing supper, and smiling just for him stirred unfamiliar yearnings. She made him think of settling down, of what it would be like to have a family of his own. This would be nice to come home to every night. “The best cornbread I’ve had,” he said, helping himself to another piece. He smeared fresh churned butter over the top. “Cake has been helping.”

“That’s good. But you’ve got a lot to do in the house. Let Cake take some of the load. Butter, bread, reckon just about anything you’d need in the kitchen he’s got plenty.” “I feel like I need to prove my worth to TJ.” She already had. Train knew TJ. He held to the past, living on the bitterness of regret because Janelle died. In his twisted head, TJ didn’t

think he could praise Allison without betraying his memories. “You have.” He tilted his head indicating Michael. Beef stew dripped from his chin, corn bread smashed in his fists, and his eyes drooped. “He’s almost asleep. I’ll take him to bed.” Allison used a cloth to wipe his chin and hands. Then she kissed his cheek. “Night, Tiger.”

Train lifted the child. Michael buried his face in Train’s neck. Train carried Michael to his room, but his thoughts remained with Allison. She’d make a good wife and mother. She had patience with the children, doting on them. She’d give the same attention to her husband. The thought brought a smile to his lips. “I made coffee,” she said

when he returned. “Thanks for helping me with the children tonight. TJ tries to be home before they get too tired. It gives me a rest. I guess I’ve grown used to the routine, because tonight I’m worn out.” Reaching behind, she kneaded the back of her neck. Train led her to a kitchen chair and sat her down. “I’ll get the coffee.” After he set a cup in front of her, he moved

to stand behind her chair. Hesitantly at first, he worked the tired muscles of her neck. She let her head fall forward. Streams of perspiration trickled down his back, but not because of the heat in the kitchen. In fact, Allison’s creamy skin felt cool to the touch. His hands stilled as he focused on the pulse beating beneath her ear. Her scent drifted to his nose. His heart pounded. Sexual desire

pumped through his veins straight into his groin. A tickle of apprehension crawled up his spine. Allison once worked in a brothel. She was still a lady. He had no business thinking of her as anything else. Wondering why he stopped, Allison turned and looked into his face. Her breath caught in her throat. His intense stare shifted from

her eyes to her mouth. “Thank you.” He reached up and gently touched a tendril of her hair. “I knew your hair would be soft.” Heat rushed into her cheeks. “I think it’s been a long day for both of us. Perhaps the sun has made you a little intoxicated,” she said with a lighthearted laugh. “Foolish might be a better word. Don’t know what

I was thinking, but I apologize.” Allison rested a hand on his arm. “You have been a perfect gentleman. I’ve enjoyed your company.” Train sat next to her and sipped his coffee. “Would you like to go for a walk tomorrow evening?” Allison smiled and inclined her head. “Do you think TJ will be back by then?”

Train nodded. “Then I’d love to.” He stood again. “Good night, Allison. I’ll see you tomorrow about seven.” “I suspect you’ll see me at some point during the day. If you find you have the time, I’ll make you a glass of lemonade.” “I reckon I’ll make the time.” Train took his hat and left through the back door. * * *

TJ leaned against the headboard of Sandy’s bed. The sheets were tousled, but neither felt very satisfied with the activities of the night. Sandy leaned against the wall and inhaled her cigarette. “So you want to talk about it?” she asked. TJ closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Everyone has an off night.” “I don’t recall you ever having a problem.” She went

to a brandy decanter and poured two glasses half-full. “You can be honest with me, TJ. I’m a professional. You won’t hurt my feelings with the truth. I knew it would happen.” “What are you talking about? Nothing has happened.” He took the glass and tossed back the drink in one shot. “Why do you think I sent Allison with you? Believe

me; she did a great job here. The girls and I miss her.” “Allison cleans my house. If you want her back, say the word.” “Haven’t you figured it out? She’s not a whore. TJ! You need a good woman. Janelle would hate to see her children raised by a barn full of rowdy ranch hands. Those babies need the gentle touch of a mother. And you need the loving arms of a wife.

You have a hard head. You need a young woman in your bed every night, not a roll with an old madam like me every couple of weeks.” TJ had Allison in his bed every night, dreaming of her soft curves next to him. During the day, she made his jeans tight at the most inopportune times. “I’m not talking about Allison. And I’m sure as hell not considering taking my

children’s babysitter into my bed. If you don’t want me around, there’s better ways than pushing me on Allison. She’s still a girl.” “She’s a woman. You can’t lie to me. I’ve been around too long. You want her. It’s why you’re distracted tonight.” He stood and pulled his trousers back on. “You don’t know a damn thing about me or what Janelle would want.”

Tucking his shirt in, TJ stormed from the room. Marion rushed to Sandy’s room when she saw TJ leave. “Are you all right?” she asked breathless. “Of course.” Sandy lit another cigarette. “He’s a fool. Can’t stand to go near the fire for fear of getting burned. Allison would be good for him and he for her,” she said, pointing the two

fingers holding a cigarette at Marion. “Thick headed, that’s what he is. Does he really think I sent Allison out there to take care of the house and kids? He can’t be that daft, and I know he isn’t. He could have put her to work here in town if he’d wanted to grant my request. No, he’s afraid because he’s attracted to her.” “Does Allison know you’re manipulating?” “No, she’s no smarter

than him when it comes to common sense. And it’s not manipulating. I’m facilitating. I saw the way she looked at TJ. If TJ weren’t so focused on being miserable, he would have seen it, too.” She put her arm around Marion. “Come on,” she said, leading her out of the room. “I either need another date tonight or a few more drinks.” “This is a first for you in a long time.” Marion laughed.

“Shush. My reputation is at stake. I always satisfy.” * * * * * TJ drove swiftly through the night pushing the horses harder than was safe. Sissy and Michael served as his excuse for going home early. Charlie, the man he brought with him, had been having a poor night at the poker tables. “No problem, boss. I appreciate the excuse to bow out of the game.”

“I didn’t let Sissy know I wouldn’t be there to say goodnight. Allison can handle it.” He shrugged. “I started feeling guilty.” TJ wondered if his guilt didn’t have a little to do with seeing Sandy. She had been a comfort since Janelle passed. Yet, when he sought comfort tonight, all he felt was dirty. He could smell the whiskey on her breath and the cigarette smoke in her hair.

Lately the scent of rose water and fresh baked bread was all it took to get his heart kicking and his cock hard. When Allison entered the room, he felt like a stallion stomping the ground ready to rut. He wondered if she had any idea of the thoughts running through his head. Allison had worked in a brothel. Surely, the idea of being with one man held more appeal than the Dusty

Rose. Damn Sandy for suggesting he take Allison to bed. Of course, he thought about her naked beneath him, his body buried deep into hers, but those were fantasies. Having Sandy voice the possibility made him want Allison even more. Of course, they would need to keep their activities carefully guarded. Not just from the men working at the ranch. Sissy and Michael

couldn’t be privy to the shift in the relationship either. No, using Allison as if she were his personal whore was a bad idea. One better left alone. It would cause problems. If Sissy discovered his attraction to Allison, she might start plotting. The last thing he needed was Sissy looking for a new mama. And what if the men discovered he’d brought Allison home from the brothel? He didn’t

want ranch hands showing up at the house looking to bed her. There had never been a hint of innuendo of improper behavior between he and Allison, no one would dare, but men had needs. Tonight he couldn’t get the little vixen out of his head. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw long locks of silky, chestnut colored hair. When he opened them up again he saw an aged

whore who had too many hard nights and not enough tenderness in her life. Sandy didn’t deserve that. “We won’t be home much before sun up,” Charlie said. “I know. Climb on top of the load and get some rest. I’ve got some thinking to do. I won’t be much company.” Charlie hitched a leg over the buckboard and found a comfortable spot on top of the

canvas tarp covering the ranch supplies. The stars in the sky and the full moon gave plenty of light for the drive home. The crickets chirped and an owl hooted from the forest surrounding them, both comforts to TJ as he pondered what to do about his growing fascination with Miss Lake. * * * * * Allison woke early. Thoughts of Joseph kept her

tossing and turning most of the night. Last night, he had made it very clear that he was interested in more than friendship. She wasn’t quite sure how she wanted to handle the situation. “Hello.” She startled seeing TJ sitting at the table with a bottle half-full of amber colored liquid and blood shot eyes. “Am I disturbing you?” She stood in the shadow cast by the one

low-lit lantern burning on the table. “Yes,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice. “Then I’ll leave you alone,” she said, and turned to leave the room. “Allison, wait.” His voice was softer. “You don’t need to leave.” She stepped into the light. “I came down to make bread for the children. Do you want a cup of coffee or

something to eat?” He lifted his drink and took a hefty swallow. “I’m good.” Allison went to the wood box and grabbed some kindling. She opened the oven door and built a fire. She could feel TJ’s eyes boring into her back as she worked around the kitchen. She also took notice of the clink of glass each time he took another drink.

“How was your trip to town?” She tried not to sound petulant, but thinking about him going into Sandy’s bedroom and doing those deliciously naughty to another woman made her throat tighten. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She wanted to ask him if he’d seen Sandy. Of course, that was out of the question. It was none of her business,

and he wouldn’t tell her anyway. He didn’t have to. She was more than capable of imagining the activities he’d engaged in. Living at the brothel may not have brought her experience, however she did receive an education in matters of the flesh. “Sissy and I planted a garden. Joseph helped us work the soil and get the seeds in the ground.” “So, it’s Joseph now.

Only his mama called him Joseph. The two of you must have gotten close.” Allison didn’t understand the scowl marring his mouth. “If you’ll tell me your given name, I’ll gladly call you by it. Does that satisfy you?” “I don’t want you keeping Train from his work.” “You told me to go to him whenever I need anything which is exactly

what I’ve been doing.” She stood near the stove with her hands on her hips. “If that is no longer an option, what do you suggest I do?” He stared into his glass. Picking up the drink, he swirled the contents and upended it. He swallowed and exhaled a gasp. “You come to me from now on.” He set the glass on the table a bit too forcefully. Allison stood still as TJ’s

stare burned through her dress. Warmth rushed into her nipples and pooled in her belly. Moisture flooded between her legs. Tightening her thighs, she pivoted away. When she’d come downstairs, she’d assumed she’d be alone. The children were asleep and TJ…TJ wasn’t asleep. He was with Sandy. Had she known he’d be home, she would’ve dressed differently. The

nightdress she wore allowed light to filter through the fabric outlining the contours of her figure. She had no doubt TJ noted every curve. She wasn’t built like the women in the brothel. Not enough curves or flesh. She didn’t want TJ comparing her to a whore. She didn’t want to know she lacked the qualities a man needed in his bed. After pouring two cups of coffee, she set one in front

of him. Then she sat at the table and wrapped her hands around the warmth of the mug. TJ took the bottle of whiskey and topped off his coffee. Before Allison had time to move her cup, he topped off hers. “No,” she said too late. “I don’t drink.” “I seem to recall that conversation,” he said. “It seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?” She took a

drink of her coffee and then choked on the hot liquid. “Oh,” she coughed. “That tastes awful.” “I stopped tasting it a couple of hours ago.” Allison went to the kitchen door, opened it, and dumped the contents onto the ground. Then she went to the sink and rinsed her cup. “Maybe we should go to bed.” After the words were out of her mouth, she realized

the implication. “I mean, maybe you should sleep off what ever is bothering you and I’ll go back to my room.” TJ stood from the table and slowly crossed the room to stand in front of her. He trapped her between his overwhelming, strong and powerful body and the kitchen sink. The smell of whisky on his breath didn’t bother her. The beating of her heart thundered in her ears.

She stood perfectly still afraid of what would happen if she moved. His gaze locked on her mouth. Whiskers shadowed his cheeks. Lines creased the corners of his eyes as they narrowed and he leaned into her. His breath was warm. Dear God, he was going to kiss her. She sucked in a breath and waited. “Good night, Allison.” Her body went limp as he

dropped his drink in the sink, turned, and left the room. With white knuckles, and weak knees, she gripped the edge of the counter to keep from losing her balance. That was close…too close. * * * * * The following evening, Allison fed the children early. She wanted extra time to get ready for her walk with Joseph. Technically it could be called courting, but she

preferred to think of it as an act of friendship. Allison brushed the wrinkles from her favorite dress. It was one of the few possessions she had from her life in Boston. The neckline cut across her collarbone and wrapped around her shoulders leaving them bare. The deep green color matched her eyes. Carefully she centered and pinned a cameo brooch to the collar of her dress between

her breasts. Montana sun had created fire-like highlights in her hair, which fell to the center of her back in soft curls. She like the way she looked. Montana made her feel beautiful. The way Joseph responded to her made her feel like a woman. Alas, TJ’s indifference rattled her most. The cause of her frustration sat in the living room with his feet up. He

opened his eyes when he heard her on the stairs. He stood. His eyes narrowed as she came into the room. If only she could distinguish the difference between happy, mad, or apathetic. Would he comment on her dress, the way she looked? She’d studied her reflection in the mirror. The dress couldn’t be more different from her usual attire, or anything he’d ever

seen her in for that matter. “Did you get something to eat?” He nodded. “Allison—” He was about to say more when a knock sounded at the door. “I’ll be right back.” He took two steps when she stopped him by placing a hand on his arm. “I know who’s at the door.” He moved her hand, went to the door, and opened it.

“Evening, TJ.” Train’s eyes immediately scanned the room to find Allison. “I’m ready.” She loosely draped her wrap around her shoulders. “Did you do all this for me?” He placed his hand on the small of her back. She smiled at him and nodded. “Where in the hell are you two going?” TJ folded his arms across his chest.

“Joseph is taking me for an evening stroll.” She placed her white gloved fingers on his forearm. “You don’t look dressed for walking. You look ready for the opera or something.” Allison did a small curtsy. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” “This is a ranch. Your dress will be filthy.” “A night like this, with a handsome gentleman, is

worth it.” Train and Allison walked down the front steps of the house. “I think we can assume TJ doesn’t approve.” Train looked over his shoulder to the house. His boss was upset and Train knew why. Allison looked incredible and TJ wasn’t on the receiving end of Allison’s efforts for a change.

“I don’t see what business it is of his.” They were across the front yard and heading down the hill before they finally heard TJ slam the door. “I like you, Joseph. You’re the only friend I have in the whole Montana Territory. Except of course, Marion and Sandy. There were others at the brothel, but I wasn’t close to them. I suppose if I’d been there

longer, I would’ve gotten to know them better. But then again, maybe not. Marion and I got along best.” Train covered her hand with his. “Allison,” he interrupted. “I’m not real good with words, but I didn’t ask you to come walking to build a friendship. I think you know I’m interested in more.” “I do,” she said. A mild breeze blew her hair gently around her face.

His fingers grazed her cheek, and then pulled a tendril from her eyes. “I guess we ought to put our cards on the table.” Allison looked at the ground. “Joseph, you don’t really know me.” She started to walk again. “I don’t want to be courted. I want to go for walks with a friend I can trust. We can share supper and laugh together.” “You just described courting.” He stopped her

again. Pushing his cowboy hat higher onto his head, he leaned into her. “There’s just one other thing that goes along with courting.” He brushed his lips softly against hers. Allison didn’t pull away. She waited for the tingle that never came. Granted, it was nice. His lips were soft and he only applied the slightest pressure. After she opened

her eyes, she saw him looking at her with interest. They walked without much conversation for a little while longer. As the skies began to grow dark, Train stopped at the bottom of the steps leading to the house. TJ had neglected to leave a lantern lit for her return. “I’ll go in with you.” He placed one foot on the step until Allison put her hand on his chest.

“TJ didn’t look happy when we left. Your coming in wouldn’t be good for either one of us.” He nodded his agreement. “When can I see you again?” “Tomorrow,” she said and laughed. “I’m going to be working in the garden. Come by for a minute if you get a chance.” “I’ll make time.” He didn’t try to kiss her lips

again. Instead, he kissed her gloved hand. Allison opened the door. The room was much darker than she expected. There was usually some light from the living room. However, because of the warm evening, TJ hadn’t built a fire. Allison tried feeling her way to the nearest lamp. She cleaned every inch of the house. She ought to be able to find the side table without

hurting herself or tipping anything over. The spark of a match startled her. “Did you have a nice time?” TJ held the match near his face and then lit the lamp next to him. “You scared me.” She tossed her wrap onto the chair and walked across the room with a stiff stride. “What are you doing sitting in the dark?” Her pulse suddenly jumped into an erratic

rhythm. She poured two fingers of something into a crystal glass at the bar. “Can I get you a drink? I need one.” She brought the glass to her lips and swallowed the liquor. A cough erupted from her chest and her throat caught fire from the burn. TJ vaulted out of the chair. She barely saw his quick movement. “You don’t drink, remember.” He took the glass from her trembling

hand and set it back on the bar. “And I’ve already had enough.” “I do what I want.” She poured another two fingers and drank it the same way. Her body convulsed over the taste. She swallowed, trying to get passed the vile flavor. “I am your maid and nanny,” she said, her voice hoarse. She coughed. “How does that give you the right to choose my evening activities?”

Pulling off her gloves, she tossed them aside. “You can do what you want, not with Train.” He grabbed a glass and filled it half way. His head fell back as he drank the entire amount. Allison replenished her drink, this time taking as much as TJ. “You’ll be sick,” he said. She narrowed her eyes and drank, wiping her mouth with her sleeve.

“If I want to drink, I’ll drink.” She pointed a finger at his face. “If I want to walk with Joseph, I will.” She brushed her hair out of her face. Either from the alcohol or the situation, she was already starting to feel dizzy. “And if he wants to kiss me again, I just might let him.” A slow, devious thought wormed into her mind. “I might let him do a lot more. Remember, I’m a whore.”

She tried to brush past him, but stumbled. He grabbed onto her arms to keep her from toppling over. She pulled away from his grasp. “I don’t want you to touch me.” She finished the rest of the contents in her glass and then reached for the decanter again. This time TJ took it away and placed it out of her reach. “You’ve had enough,” he

said through clenched teeth. “You’ll be drunk.” “Why do you care?” she said, trying to pull the brooch from her dress. “Because I like when you smell like rosewater.” The fabric tore. “Stop!” He pushed her hands away and carefully unhooked the brooch. Allison looked at his hand against the creamy skin of her décolletage. Suddenly,

she could hold very still. TJ couldn’t seem to move his eyes off of her either. “Train kissed you.” His fingers traced the shadow of her collarbone. Allison looked into his face and nodded. “He kissed me on our walk. He expressed his interest in me.” TJ pulled his hand away as if her skin had become to hot to touch. “If you want to continue to work here, you’ll

discourage him.” Annoyed for letting him once again get to her, she clenched her fists at her side. “You infuriate me,” she screamed. “One minute you look as though you find me…” She searched for the right words, unable to find them. “I don’t know. You look at me the way a man looks at something he must have or die. And then you turn into a jackass.”

“Train is a little brother to me.” “Then I think you would want to see him happy.” She sat on the couch before she fell over. The room spun. “I do. Not with you.” As he walked past her, she stuck out her leg stopping him. “Alcohol makes you brave,” he said, looking down on her. “I’m not a whore.” She

pulled herself up using his shirt as leverage. She swayed, and he put his hand under her arm, helping her to her feet. “I want more from life than being your servant. Just because I find you attractive, doesn’t mean I’m going to sit around and wait for you to notice me.” She poked him in the chest. “I don’t care what you want. I don’t care who you want. Go to Sandy. If you don’t want me, stay out

of the way for someone who might.” She pushed him away and wobbled to the stairs. Take that TJ, whatever your name stands for, Bester.

Chapter Seven A wave of panic washed over Allison when she looked to the clock. TJ would be down for breakfast soon. She remembered the things she’d said last night with startling clarity. What in the world possessed her to declare her feelings for TJ? Alcohol. Sandy warned her that she

couldn’t handle much. Did she listen? No, she set out to prove to TJ she lived by her own rules and managed to make a complete idiot out of herself. “Morning,” TJ said coming into the kitchen giving Sissy a kiss on the top of her head. Allison dropped the bowl of oatmeal she was going to feed Michael. The dish broke into three large pieces. “I’m

sorry, Mr. Bester. I don’t know why I’m so clumsy this morning.” She bent down and picked up the pieces. “Just because we had a difference of opinion last night, doesn’t mean you need to formally address me. I think we’ve moved beyond that, don’t you?” He sat at the table. “We’ve broken a few dishes, haven’t we, Sissy?” She vigorously nodded her head. “I’m clumsy, too.”

“Mama.” Michael reached for Allison when she placed another bowl in front of him. Her hand stilled before handing him the spoon. “I’m sorry,” she said to TJ. “He doesn’t understand.” “She told him she wasn’t his mama,” Sissy said. “But he wants her to be.” Sissy put another bite of oatmeal into her mouth. “I want her to be my mama, too.”

“You have a mother.” TJ’s chair tipped over when he pushed away from the table. He stomped from the room and Allison hurried after him. “Don’t do this to them.” She grabbed his arm. He turned on her. “I already did! I never wanted anyone to replace their mother.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I won’t.” She gently laid

her hand on his arm. “I won’t.” “You already have.” He leaned back against the wall. “It’s not your fault. Hell, it isn’t anyone’s fault.” “I won’t answer him when he calls me mama. I’ll discourage him.” TJ looked at the ceiling. “He’s too young to understand. When he’s older, I’ll tell him about his mother.” A defeat sign spilled

from his lips. “If you don’t mind, I won’t object.” Allison stayed quiet for a moment letting TJ put his thoughts together. “Sissy has also slipped. I always correct her.” “Not Sissy,” he snapped. “She’s old enough to know better. If she continues, you tell her she’ll be punished.” “No. If you want to chastise her for wanting a mother, you can do it

yourself. I’ll explain again and again that I’m not her mother, but I won’t be her punishment.” Allison turned and went back into the kitchen. TJ stayed in the hall for a few minutes before joining her. “I think I’ll take a cup of coffee and some of that oatmeal,” he said, sitting next to Sissy. “We have a big barbecue over the Fourth of July. Some of the men have

wives and kids. They all come up to the house and turn the shack into a dance hall.” “Sounds like fun.” “Oh, it is,” Sissy said. “After it gets dark, Charlie does the fireworks.” “If it doesn’t rain soon, we won’t be doing any fireworks this year,” TJ stated. “That reminds me,” Allison interrupted. “I need water for the vegetable

garden or I’m going to lose everything. Can I ask Joseph to help me? I don’t think I’m strong enough.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t even think about a retort.” She squinted her eyes as she waited for him to say something. “Good.” He took a drink of coffee. “I’m not busy today.” Allison hadn’t expected him to volunteer. “Thank you. I’ll finish the dishes and

meet you outside.” An hour later, Allison worked next to TJ in the garden. “How many people come to the barbecue?” She moved down the furrowed line of vegetables watering another row of young plants. “Couple hundred, I guess.” TJ carried a large bucket filled with water and placed it near her. He took his bandana out of his pocket and wiped his brow.

“I haven’t met any of the wives yet. I—” She stopped, searching for the words. “If anyone has heard of my past, they’ll jump to conclusions.” “They won’t. Only a few people know how you came to live here.” She watered a couple more plants. “They’ll think there’s something going on between us.” “I can live with that.” “TJ!”

“At least no one else would get any ideas about courting and evening walks.” “You aren’t being fair.” He shrugged. “Won’t be the first time we disagree.” She wanted to kiss the arrogant smile from his face as much as she wanted to slap it. “Somehow I think you’re right.” “I still need to talk with Train.” “No, you don’t. Stay out

of my personal business. My relationship with Joseph doesn’t concern you.” She chewed her bottom lip. “Unless you think it’ll affect the way your other employees respond to me.” “Doesn’t matter what they think. They won’t say anything.” “I hope you’re right.” TJ moved the bucket closer to her. “Will you do something with me?”

Water sloshed out of the bucket as she picked it up. “Like what?” Her words were a whisper as a shiver of awareness skittered up her spine. TJ grinned. “Why, Allison, you’re blushing. Just what exactly are you thinking?” Her ears burned. He laughed. “I want to take you somewhere.” His voice touched her like a

caress. “Don’t worry. I’ll get someone to finish watering your vegetables.” She pushed her bangs out of her eyes. “I can’t go anywhere with you. What about the children?” She waved in the direction where Sissy and Michael played. “I’ll get Train to watch them.” Nausea rolled in her stomach. “I don’t think that is a good idea.” She turned

away and watered another plant. “Joseph might get the wrong idea.” He set the bucket to the side and moved to stand beside her. He pushed a tendril of hair coming loose from her bun, behind her ear. “Or he might get the right idea,” he softly spoke. His expression turned serious. “I won’t hurt Joseph. He’s my friend.” A slow grin split his lips.

“Then we don’t have a problem. He can be your friend.” He traced her eyebrow with his thumb. “Don’t think about him. Say you’ll come with me because you want to.” Allison closed her eyes as his finger moved along her jaw. Her heart raced as she anticipated the kiss. When it didn’t happen, she opened her eyes. Because the sun was bright overhead, she had to

narrow her eyes to see him. “I’ll go with you. First you have to promise not to mislead Joseph into believing there is something going on between us when there isn’t.” “Isn’t there?” Her skin sizzled with his touch. Warmth bloomed in her belly and her nipples tightened. Did TJ know the way he affected her? Of course, he did. His eyes darkened with desire.

Because of the time she spent in the brothel, she recognized the look in a man’s eye when he lusted for a woman. “Maybe Cake could watch the children?” “You worry too much.” Before she could argue, he headed down the hill. Allison brought the children into the house. A few minutes later, TJ had two horses saddled outside the front door. Joseph stood on the

porch with his fists tucked into his front pockets. He squinted against the glare of the sun. She wanted to take him aside and assure him nothing would come of the ride. A part of her—the part tingling with anticipation of going with TJ—wouldn’t let her lie to him. When TJ indicated the horse she would ride, Allison laughed. “Do you think you

could harness those beasts to a buggy?” TJ took her hand and pulled her towards the horses. “We ride.” Fear surged from her head to the tips of her toes. “I don’t ride.” He lifted her into the saddle. “TJ, I don’t want to. I’m scared of horses.” He laughed at her. “You’ve got to be kidding.” TJ ran back up the front porch steps and pulled a spare

cowboy hat off the railing. “Thanks,” he said, slapping the hat against Train’s shoulder. With the ease of a seasoned rider, he mounted his dark brown horse with hooves the size of an elephant’s. He maneuvered next to the gentle sorrel Allison rode. He handed her the hat. “It’ll keep the sun out of your eyes. Ready?” “No, I don’t think so. I’d

prefer a wagon ride.” “Can’t live on a ranch and not know how to ride a horse.” She nodded. “Then I suppose I’ll need to move back to town.” TJ laughed. “If you’re too scared—” “I’m not.” She furrowed her brows. “Just tell me what to do.” “That’s my girl. Follow my lead.”

Allison couldn’t look at Joseph, couldn’t stand to see hurt and confusion on his face. And this wasn’t the time to try to explain. Did she really have an explanation? She couldn’t say no to TJ, not the way she’d been able to say no to Joseph. Allison mimicked TJ’s actions, urging her horse forward. She fidgeted with the reins. The horse seemed to want to go in every

direction except straight ahead. Shifting slightly, she adjusted her weight in the saddle. Her horse whinnied, twisted its head, and pulled the reins. She gripped harder. “Allison, let the reins loose.” Allison tossed the reins to the side of the horse’s head as if they were hot to the touch. “Why?” TJ laughed and brought his horse close to hers.

“Perhaps I should’ve phrased that differently,” he said, handing her back the reins. Picking up his, he demonstrated rather than explain. “She’s a good gal to follow.” “I’m on a mare? Well, that gives me a little comfort. Females have much better temperaments than males. It’s true in most species.” TJ chuckled. “You’ve got a clever tongue.”

Allison loosened her grip on the reins, and the horse did just as TJ said she would and fell into pace. “That’s much better.” She smiled and patted the horse on the neck. “Her name is Sugar,” TJ said, moving his horse to trot along side hers. “Because she is sweet-tempered and easy to ride.” “And what is his name?” She white-knuckle gripped the saddle horn as the horses

moved along. “Rocky. Come on.” He urged his horse into a quicker pace by squeezing his thighs. Allison let out a scream as her horse followed. Leaning forward she held onto the horse with every muscle in her body. Her heart raced with the speed of the horse beneath her. After a few minutes, TJ asked, “Are you closing your eyes?” He slowed the horses.

“I’m scared,” she cried. “I want to go back to the house.” Tears spilled onto her cheeks. TJ quickly dismounted his horse and then helped her. “I’m sorry.” “I told you I didn’t know how to ride.” She slapped his chest after he set her on the ground. “Let go of me.” She pushed him away and dusted herself off. Her eyes scanned the area around them. “Where

are we?” They stood high on a bluff overlooking the ranch and all the outbuildings. She could see from one end of the valley to the other. In the distance, a herd of cattle grazed in a drying pasture. She walked toward the edge of the cliff. Almost out of range of her vision was the blue water of a lake. In the other direction, mountains loomed majestically to the

north and west. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.” TJ pulled the saddles from the horses. He took a blanket and unfolded it under a tree. “This is my favorite spot on the property. Do you know why I brought you here?” “No. What is this place?” He smiled and patted the blanket, inviting her to sit next to him. “Everything I am, my land, my home, the

herds. My granddad started this place with fifty head of cattle. My dad took over and when he died, it fell to me to carry on.” He put a blade of grass between his teeth and leaned back, propped up with his elbows. His cowboy hat sat low on his head so Allison couldn’t see his eyes when he talked. It didn’t matter. She could hear the pride in his voice. “What are you going to

do if it doesn’t rain soon? I can see how dry the fields are.” She sat in front of him, becoming part of his view. She took off her hat and wiped her face with the hem of her dress. Pulling her hair loose, she let it tumble down her back. Because of the heat, she went to pin it back in place. “Leave it.” He reached up and combed it with his fingers. She sat motionless.

“You are a beautiful woman.” His hand ran along her arm and then traced her knuckles with the pad of his finger. “Do you ever think about me?” Her hands trembled. “Not unless I’m mad at you,” she lied. His deep laugh vibrated into her chest, settling in her breast. She tingled where his finger touched her, sending chills along her arms.

“I don’t believe you.” He sat closer and leaned into her ear. “You’re shaking. Are you afraid of me?” He inhaled her scent. His lips barely brushed the shell of her ear. Yet, the powerful response created a rift in her resolve. “No,” she whispered, acutely aware of his earthy scent. “It’s not fear.” She closed her eyes when his hands reached under her hair

and wrapped around her nape. She leaned into the touch. Her stomach twisted, tied into knots. She ached for this—to know what his hands would feel like on her skin. Gently, he turned her toward him and pulled her onto his lap. His heavy, thick and hard arousal pressed against her rear. With one arm wrapped around her back and the other hand resting close to her breast, he closed

in on her slightly parted lips. Lips against lips, barely touching. Shivers of desire followed the warm pressure. His mouth opened over hers. She sank against him. Her fingers gripped the front of his shirt when he moved his head to deepen the kiss. His tongue seared the inside of her mouth. Tentatively, she allowed her tongue to follow and linger as his had done,

savoring the flavor of his moist mouth. Blood pounded in her brain, and between her legs leaving her weak and wet. She was breathless when he finally pulled away. They stayed in the embrace and stared at each other. Allison reached her arms around his neck and pulled him closer to her. She was shocked at her own eager response to the hardness of his kiss. Quivering with

anticipation, her body molded to his. He ran his hand up her spine. His lips parted, and she let her tongue slip inside meeting his again. TJ growled from deep in his core and pulled her tightly against him. He buried his face in her neck and kissed at the spot under her ear, touching his tongue to her flesh, slightly salty from their ride. Her head fell back

exposing her entire neck to his wandering mouth. As he savored the taste of her silken skin, he explored the curves and hollows of her body. He gently lowered her to the blanket. Once on her back, he then partially covered her body with his. “Tell me if you want me to stop.” She nipped at his lips. He took it as permission and his mouth ravaged her

completely. Inhaling deeply, her chest rose. He touched the swell of her breast and then cupped it with his palm. Brushing his thumb against the hardened peak beneath the fabric of her dress, he captured a moan of pleasure with another heated kiss. “I want you.” He whispered against her mouth as he ground against her hip. “I need you—need to be

inside you.” Allison broke the kiss and pushed on his chest. Her breath came in heavy gasps as she sat up. “Good heavens, no.” TJ couldn’t focus. Blood roared through his head. His heart raced and his body tensed. “Ah, hell.” He ran his hands through his hair and lowered his head. “I’m sorry, Allison.” Her reaction to his kiss both surprised and

alarmed. Passionate Allison had almost made him come undone. But wasn’t that why he’d brought her to his favorite spot, to prove she wanted him? He sure as hell knew he wanted her. “Don’t be sorry, I’m not. We’ve both been curious and now we know,” she said. “It would be wise for us not to allow lust to consume our thoughts, better we not speak of this at all.”

“Allison,” he said wanting to tell her something, anything to smooth the worry lines creasing her forehead. “We better go.” They rode back to the house in silence. Allison couldn’t stop thinking about his hands setting her flesh on fire. She’d told him not to dwell on what happened, but she wasn’t sure she could do that herself. If TJ had wanted,

he could’ve lifted her dress and taken her virginity. Still moist from his kisses, she remembered how her heart had pounded and heat had swelled between her legs. Even now, she ached to have him lying on top of her, pressing her into the ground as his hard length speared into her. Flutters filled her belly. Allison finally understood the wants of a woman.

Once at the ranch house, TJ helped her off the horse and then rode back toward the stables. Standing there, watching his retreat, she didn’t hear Joseph come up behind her, until he spoke. “How was the ride?” She turned, but fearing he would see what she had done, she avoided a direct glance at him. She put her hands to her hair. She plucked a leaf from her

tangled hair. How was she? Confused, aroused, torn. TJ had kissed her hard. And she’d wanted more. “I’m fine.” What more could she say? He gave her a half-smile and left her standing on the porch. Train met up with TJ on the trail back to the house. “Did the kids behave?” TJ asked Train.

“Did you?” Train snapped back. “Don’t say something you might regret.” TJ attempted to walk past, but Train stepped in front of him. “Is there something you want to say?” TJ slipped his thumbs into the front pockets of his jeans. “I’m not backing off because you found a way to entertain yourself for the afternoon. I like her. Maybe I

could even love her.” Train aggressively rammed his shoulder into TJ’s as he walked past. “Stay out of my way, and I’ll stay out of yours.” * * * As soon as Allison entered the house, she changed her clothes and combed her hair. Putting her hand to her heart, she took several deep breaths. She shouldn’t let TJ know how

much she enjoyed his kiss, how much she wanted him to kiss her again. But she couldn’t stop smiling. Returning to the living room, she sat on the sofa and tucked her feet beneath her as she waited for him to return. The door burst open and slammed closed behind him. “What went on with you and Train?” Uncurling her legs, she sat straight. Fury radiated off

him in waves and his eyes sent shards of fear through her. “Train? We’re just friends.” “More than that, I think. I just had a conversation with him.” He went to the bar and poured a drink. “He fancies himself in love with you.” He slammed the drink. “Did you fuck him?” “No!” She covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head. “How could

you think that? I swear, we had one kiss. One kiss,” she cried. “And I’m not sure it was a kiss after today.” TJ’s drink stilled halfway to his mouth. “Explain.” “He gave me a simple peck on the lips.” As much as she wanted to plead her innocence, a bigger need to lash out at TJ surged over her. “Not that I owe you any explanation, but I’ve never done anything like we did

today.” Her voice grew louder. “Ever.” TJ’s shoulders relaxed. “Damn you.” She spun away. “You can’t do this to me.” “I’m sorry.” He crossed to her, rested his hands on her shoulders, and turned her to face him. “Forgive me. I can’t help that I’m jealous over your relationship with him.” “My relationship with Joseph has nothing to do with

us. I’m different with you.” She stood on her tiptoes and gently brushed his lips with hers. So much for abstaining from intimate contact. She hadn’t been away from him more than a few minutes and already she felt a mysterious ache spreading through her breasts and sinking into her sex. TJ wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. Then he kissed the top

of her head. “I want you to have Sugar.” She pulled away and smiled. “Really?” “She’ll remind you of what happened today.” Allison’s cheeks warmed. “I won’t need a horse to remember.” “I told you her name was Sugar, because she is sweet tempered and easy to ride. I’m beginning to think of you the same way.”

Allison’s mouth dropped open. “As in easy to ride.” She shoved hard against his chest. “I’m not a mare…or a whore. How dare you? Why do I care what you think?” How dare he insinuate what happened between them equated to nothing more than animal attraction. “Easy now,” he laughed, taking her by the shoulders. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.” He laughed.

“Okay, I did. But I meant it in a good way.” She wiggled, attempting to break free from his grip. “I want you to know how good you felt underneath me,” he whispered. She thought he might kiss her again so she lifted her knee, impacting his thigh and jerked free from his embrace. “I’ll take the horse as a way to remember why all you’ll ever have of me is the

memory of today. Go to hell TJ, I don’t want anything to do with you.” * * * * * Allison sat in the dark for a long time. She couldn’t stop seeing the look of devastation on Joseph’s face when he left. She had hurt the only friend she had at the ranch for an afternoon tryst that meant nothing to TJ. He affected her in ways she never knew possible, but he professed no

real feelings. It seemed his only concern was she not be with someone else. Blaming anyone, save herself was pointless. TJ had declared his intentions from the beginning. He’d only ever have one wife, and she was gone. Allison had tempted him at every opportunity. Ever since the night he spent with Sandy, she had wanted him for herself. “I am a whore,”

she told herself. She was willing to give him what he wanted without asking anything in return. She had left her life in Boston because she couldn’t do with Henry what she longed for with TJ.

Chapter Eight Two weeks passed since the day of the ride and Allison had been avoiding TJ. She’d taken to waking before dawn to sneak into the stable to feed Sugar a carrot or an apple. Too many men wandered the grounds in the evening. She worried about seeing Joseph. She didn’t

know what to say to him. When she returned from the stable, she packed TJ a lunch for a long ride into Copper City. He’d be well on his way before sun up. He’d surely make time to see Sandy. She bristled as she shoved a couple of apples into a bag. “You’re quiet,” TJ said. Allison answered him with a shrug. “I’ll be a couple of

days.” She gave him a snort. So he needed a few days to work out his frustrations. Good. “We’re getting fireworks for the Fourth.” “But it hasn’t rained,” she said concerned. “I know. Been a rough year, I don’t want to disappoint Sissy. We’ll be extra careful.” He dropped a bag carrying his clothes on the floor next to the kitchen

table. “Here’s your canteen.” She turned and thrust it into his hands when he came up behind her. “Do you have a cup of coffee for me before I head out?” He raised an eyebrow. Why did he have to be charming? She preferred the bristly TJ. “Allison? Coffee?” “Sure. I’ll make your breakfast, too.” She went to

the kitchen door. The room warmed with heat from the stove. Opening the door let in cool dry air. By mid-morning the house would roast if she didn’t leave the windows open throughout the night. Allison set a frying pan on the stove. She made bacon and eggs while TJ drank coffee and made another list. He’d already gotten her list of needs for the house. “I have letters for Sandy

and Marion.” TJ didn’t look up from the paper. “I’ll deliver them. Put them in my bag. It’s right here.” He nudged the bag with his foot. Allison kept her eyes on the stove. “Thank you.” She set the food on the table and rushed from the room. “I’ll get the letters.” Once in her bedroom, she dried her eyes and took a couple of deep cleansing

breaths. “Why do I let him do this to me?” If he still desired Sandy, it was his business. The very private TJ made it clear she had no right to question any part of his life. When she returned to the kitchen, TJ had finished his breakfast. His dish sat on the counter in the empty room. She rushed out the back door after him. “Don’t leave without my letters,” she said when she found him putting

his things in the wagon. “I wasn’t leaving. Finish loading,” he said to Charlie. “Come on.” He took Allison by the elbow and escorted her back into the house. Once the door securely latched behind them, he swung her around almost tripping her. He gently backed her against the wall. “Will you miss me?” “Of course not. I have more than enough work to keep me busy. I doubt I will

think of you at all.” “I will think about you constantly.” “I’m sure you know how to alleviate that.” She rolled her eyes. “I do.” Pressing his lips to hers, he plunged his tongue deep into her mouth. His hand rested dangerously close to her breast. Her head fell back against the wall when TJ moved his lips to trail along

the side of her neck. “Tell me you’ll miss me.” His rough voice sent flutters quivering deep inside her. “Not one minute. I hate you, remember.” Instinctively, she maneuvered her legs to fit the strain of his cock between her thighs. He growled and she smiled. “Charlie will get suspicious it I take too long.” He rested his forehead against hers. It was an intimate

embrace. “Stay close to the house.” He kissed her quickly and took his hat off the table before walking out the door. Two can play your game Mr. Bester. She knew he wanted her close to the house because of Joseph, just as she tried to show him what he wouldn’t be getting from Sandy. TJ sat on the buckboard about to drive off when Allison came out of the

house. She waved and walked past him toward the stable. “I thought you were going to stay close to the house,” TJ hollered after her. “I’m sharing breakfast with Sugar.” She held up the apple and disappeared into the darkness. * * * * * “You’ve been avoiding me.” Allison dropped the shirt she was hanging on the line

to dry in the summer sun. She held her hand above her eyes and squinted to see Joseph reaching up to secure the clothes. “Yes, I have, but not for the reasons you’re thinking.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I’m not the only one thinking there’s something going on between you and the boss.” Allison left the laundry in the basket and walked

around to the front porch. She sat on the steps. Joseph sat beside her. “Don’t ask me anything if you don’t want the truth.” She folded her hands in her lap. “I don’t want to talk about TJ.” He took off his hat and then rolled a cigarette. “You didn’t seem to mind when I kissed you.” Allison thought about the kiss they shared. It only served to remind her of TJ.

He waited for her to say something. “He won’t treat you right.” Joseph stood and put on his hat. “You’ll live in Janelle’s shadow if you try to make a life with him. Don’t get me wrong, I love TJ, but he’s the one who swore he’d never love another woman. He’ll let you believe you’re special to him. I’ve known TJ a long time. Janelle was the only woman I ever saw him remain faithful to.” He turned

and left her sitting on the porch. Her legs shook when she stood. She waited a moment for her trembling heart to slow and then went back to the laundry. Joseph’s words tumbled around in her mind. The rational side of her realized she had no claim on TJ, but her heart hurt nonetheless. Stolen kisses were not promises of potential feelings

to come later. TJ had gone to Sandy because she hadn’t been able to satisfy his needs. Joseph knew TJ better than she did. If he was right, she’d never have TJ’s love the way he was slowly claiming hers. Later, after Allison put the children to bed, she had the rare opportunity to look around TJ’s room without fear of being caught. She entered the room as she had countless times. Any time

before was to change the sheets and collect dirty clothes. She never dared look at his belongings or peer into his private desk. She carried a lantern into the room and set it on the bureau. The open window caught her attention. She blew out the flame and let the light of the moon fill the room. The curtains gently swayed in the night breeze. A thin summer blanket covered the bed. The fabric

felt soft as she ran her hand along the edge. She crawled onto the bed and pulled his pillow to her nose. It smelled of wood and flannel just like TJ. She only planned to close her eyes for a few minutes, but soon she slept. The loud crack of thunder woke her a few hours later. The gentle breeze of earlier was now a full torrent of wind. She hurried to close the window. After lighting

the lantern, she went to the children’s room and checked on them. Sissy lay awake and afraid. Michael still slept. “Mama, where’s Papa?” Her eyes darted wildly around the room. “I’m scared.” Her thin arms wrapped around Allison as Allison picked her up. “You can sleep in his bed tonight.” She carried Sissy to TJ’s room and deposited her in the spot she had just

vacated. “I’m going to get your brother. I’ll be right back.” A moment later, she placed Michael next to Sissy. “Sis, watch your brother. I’m going to close the windows downstairs.” Allison carried the lantern from window to window. Some she closed partway, the others, she closed and latched. The wind howled through the house.

She screamed as lightning struck overhead. The thunder rumbled loud. The windows shuddered as the booming intensified. She covered her ears. Then Michael cried out from TJ’s room. She rushed to the stairs as someone pounded on the front door. “Allison, open up!” Train hollered from outside. Allison pulled open the door and rushed into his arms. “I’m scared.”

“Get the kids and come with me.” He pushed her toward the stairs. His frantic tone sent shards of panic through her. “What’s wrong?” She climbed the stairs two at a time with Train right on her heels. She rushed into TJ’s room to the children. “Fire. We have to hurry.” He grabbed Sissy and Allison held Michael tightly to her chest. “It’s coming this way,

fast. I want everyone in the shack.” He talked as they carried the children down the stairs. “I already sent a rider after TJ.” He looked at Allison. “He usually stays at the same place.” He let the implication hang in the air. As they ran from the house, Allison stopped halfway across the yard and faced the wind. On the rise above them an eerie red glow radiated into the sky. Thick

black smoke made it difficult to breath. Michael started to cough. “Come on,” Train yelled. He grabbed her elbow. Once they were in the Shack, Allison realized how many people from the ranch she hadn’t met. The room filled quickly with crying children and hysterical mothers. Train jumped onto a table and called everyone to attention.

“As long as the fire stays over the rise you’ll be safe here. We need to focus on containing the fire so stay here. No one leaves without checking with Allison. If you must leave for some reason, give a detailed account of where you’ll be and when you’ll be back. If you don’t know who she is yet, she’s right here in the blue dress.” He smiled and gave her a wink. “Most of us have been

through fires before.” “Not this close to home,” someone from the back yelled. “I know.” Train hollered back. “Tell your wife good night and let’s go.” The first priority was to get the cattle on the other side of the lake. A dozen men saddled up and took off to drive the herds to safety. The rest of the men filled their canteens and grabbed

shovels. The best defense was to draw a line and keep the fire from crossing it. The women and children gathered around Allison. She wished Joseph had allocated someone else to the position, but she understood why he did it. She was on the payroll. These women just wanted to know their husbands would be back safely. “I only know as much as you,” she said to them.

“Joseph, I mean Train, assured me that he’ll send word at every opportunity. I think for now everyone should claim some space for their family. We might be in here for a while.” Allison went to find Cake. He and his wife Betty were standing at the door of the shack watching the sky. “I need your help,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll have a problem accommodating

everyone, but they’re scared, and I don’t know what to tell them.” “Oh Sugar, you let Betty help you with this.” The older woman, Cake’s wife, wrapped her chubby arm around Allison. “Cupcake.” She pointed to her husband. “Get cooking. Nothing soothes a body like good ol’ home cooking.” Betty knew everyone and introduced Allison

personally. “Don’t know how that man survived before you came to work, tending the children, cleaning that monster of a house, and even planting a garden. Sugar, you do a right fine job taking care of the boss.” “You do know my name is Allison?” Betty let out a laugh that made her whole body shake. “TJ gave you your nickname a long time ago. All of us

know you as Sugar.” “My horse’s name is Sugar. I’m more comfortable with Allison.” She tried to smile through her insecurities. “Don’t let a nickname cause you concern,” Betty said in a serious voice. “Just means you’ve been accepted into the family. You belong here.” The children played in the shack. The thick smoke

outside made it difficult to breath. The windows had to be closed. What was already a very warm room became unbearable. But thankfully the fire stayed in the far distance, well over the rise. “Cake, I want you to get some ice and let the children eat it,” Allison said. “They’re starting to fuss because of the heat. If you point me in the right direction, I’ll fill up some carafes with water. If

we add ice, I think we would all be grateful.” He nodded and went to the icehouse. A few minutes later, you could hear laughter from the children. “Good thinking,” Betty said, patting Allison on the back. Cake had food ready when the first men started returning from the fields. Black soot covered their faces. Allison watched for Joseph. She hadn’t realized

his position of authority. She heard pieces of conversation. Both men and women respected his decisions and followed orders without question. When he came though the door, her heart raced, yet relief overwhelmed. She grabbed a glass of cool water and a wet cloth. She rushed to him and led him to a chair. “Are you hurt?” She handed him the

drink, took the cloth and laid it across his forehead. “Hungry? Cake has cornbread and chicken.” He tipped the glass and drank all the water. “No, I’m going back out. I just wondered if you’ve heard from TJ.” She sat in the chair next to him. “Not yet.” They looked at each other for a minute. “You look tired.” He nodded. “I was tired

before I left. The wind shifted though.” “Then it’ll burn itself out?” “We’re hoping.” Joseph took her hand in his. “Allison, we need to talk. I’ve seen you with TJ. I know you have feelings for him.” “We can’t talk now.” She stood, but he held to her fingers and gently tugged her back down. “I can’t go back out there

and wonder what’s going to happen when TJ returns.” “You’re my best friend, and I don’t want to hurt you. But I won’t lie to you either. I can’t explain my feelings for TJ. I don’t know what they are.” She touched his hand. “You go do your job and I’ll do mine. When this thing is over, we’ll figure out the rest.” They walked to the door, and she stepped outside with

him. Before he walked away, he leaned in to kiss her. She put her hand on his chest. “When this is over.” Joseph kissed her quickly and put his hat on. She smiled and turned away from him. “Well, hello.” Sissy had been standing right behind her. “How come you’re kissin’ Train?” She took another bite of bread. Butter cream coated her fingers and greased her cheeks.

“A kiss is good luck.” She took Sissy’s hand and led her back inside. Sissy nodded, accepting the easy answer. Allison made a pallet for her and the children close to the front door of the shack so people wouldn’t have to look for her if they needed to leave. Sissy slept next to the wall and Michael, snuggled in a ball, lay tucked close to her body. Exhaustion overcame

her too, and she fell asleep. A few hours later, she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Allison?” Although she’d been asleep, she hadn’t forgotten where she was, nor could she mistake the voice. “When did you get back?” Like the other men, soot covered his face. He put his finger to his lips to hush her. “Sshh, come with me.” Michael still slept in her

arms. TJ carefully picked up his son allowing her to slide out from behind him, and then he placed him back on the pallet next to Sissy. Please don’t let the house be gone, kept racing through her mind. Instead, when she stepped outside she heard laughter. “It’s raining,” she whispered, lifting her face to feel the sprinkles. “Your garden is gone, but the house is safe. We

knew the rain was coming. We prayed it got here before the fire. It was close.” “Too close.” “I’m sorry I wasn’t here. Everyone is talking about how you took control in the shack. I don’t think you’ll have to worry what the women think about you. Betty can’t stop chattering about you.” Standing in front of her, he rubbed her arms. “I know you were scared.”

“No more scared than anyone else. Joseph deserves the praise. He shouldered most of the responsibility. He fought for your land as if it were his own.” TJ’s face darkened just like the smoke from the fire had blackened the sky. “Good. His job is to protect the ranch along with the stock, and anyone living here. He did what’s expected.” She furrowed her brows.

“You’re a jackass, TJ.” They were back to jealousy. “Expecting Joseph to risk his life is more than you have a right to. You should find him and thank him.” She stepped away and walked back into the shack. “Wait.” She ignored him. Inside the shack, Cake had hot coffee. But now that the danger had passed, and the sprinkles were becoming

a downpour, the men returned. Mothers gathered their children to take them home. As they left, Allison received countless hugs. “How are you doing?” Joseph came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. Allison stiffened and then forced herself to relax. The scent of charred forest along with smoked tobacco clung to his sweat-soaked

shirt. She turned to him. “I’m sure the same as you. Good… tired.” Fatigue clawed at his face. His blood shot eyes needed sleep. “You did great,” he said. They were the only two people left in the room. He stood close to her side as she folded the blankets used for beds. “Under different circumstances I think I would have enjoyed myself.” She

smiled at him as he took a blanket from her pile and folded it. The muscles in his arms flexed. “TJ made it back.” “I know. I spoke with him a while ago. Our garden is gone.” She tried to smile. “It could have been worse, but I can’t say I’m not disappointed.” He stopped her hands from folding. “Listen to me,” he whispered. “In a minute TJ

is going to walk through the door. All I know is that every time I try to see you, he makes damn sure I don’t.” He glanced at the door as if to ensure they were still alone. “After he turns in, come to the stables.” He wiped a smudge of soot from her cheek. “Will you meet me?” She nodded and then asked, “Do you know where they found TJ?” She realized she was holding her breath.

Until she knew the truth, she would continue be torn between the two of them. That wasn’t fair to Joseph, but her heart and her head told her two different things. His lips formed a tight line. “TJ and I aren’t seeing eye to eye right now, but that’s between him and me.” He paused, the muscle in his jaw ticked. “You know where he was.” Allison glanced at the

door. Outside TJ laughed, talking with the men he worked with every day and their families. He had his life. The children, the ranch…his time with Sandy. “I guess I do.” Her heart felt as if it plummeted into her stomach. She wanted to believe he’d delivered her letters and then checked into a respectable hotel. Why should TJ sleep alone when Sandy was willing…more

than that, Sandy wanted TJ in her bed? “I’ll meet you.” She hurried from the building, trying to escape before anyone saw her tears falling like the rain. * * * * * Allison lay in her bed soaking her pillow with tears. Bone tired, yet, she still couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t get Sandy, her arms and legs wrapped around TJ out of her mind. The taste of bile filled

her mouth. She snapped her eyes closed and fought the tears. Footsteps came down the hall. She froze, her breathing instantly becoming shallow and her heart racing. She recognized TJ by the cadence of his gait. A soft knock against the door didn’t rival the pounding in her chest. He knocked again, a little harder. “Allison,” TJ said. “I

know you’re awake.” She didn’t answer. He waited a few moments. Then the sound of his footsteps drifted away. Allison slowly exhaled. No way was he coming to her after he had been with Sandy. As much as she wanted him, loving TJ would only ever cause her hurt. She thought of Joseph. He was a good man…a safe man. Kind and gentle.

She sighed heavily. TJ made her brazen with desire. Joseph touched her with tenderness. The situation was hopeless. She ached for TJ, but she was going to give her heart…her life to Joseph. Now how was she going to convince herself that she was making the right choice? Allison cracked her bedroom door and peered into the hallway. TJ had finally gone to bed. With the lantern

from her room, she made her way down the stairs and outside onto the porch. There she blew out the flame and left the lamp for when she returned. She navigated her way with ease. It was usually dark when she went to the stables. Unlike before, instead of avoiding Joseph she walked along the path for a secret rendezvous. Half way down the slope

she ran. Out of breath, but buzzing with anticipation and apprehension, she pulled open the stable door. Joseph waited for her, sitting on a bail of hay. He leaned against the barn wall with one leg propped up beside him. “Hi.” He snapped his head in her direction and stood. Allison closed the stable door and leaned against it. “Have you been waiting

long?” “Maybe.” He smiled. “I worried you wouldn’t come.” Her head tilted to the side. “I told you I would.” She crossed to Sugar’s stall, pulled an apple from her pocket, and offered it to the horse. She rested her head against the Sugar’s snout and stroked her neck. “Good girl.” “TJ picked her just for you.”

Even with the dissention between the two men, she could hear the respect Joseph had for TJ. “I’ve never been comfortable around horses,” Allison said. “My father could be overprotective. On the first day of equestrian lessons, I fell off my horse and broke my ankle. I was never allowed to ride again.” “Do you want to ride?” he asked. “Now?”

He nodded. “Okay.” She went to grab the saddle. “We won’t need that.” He slipped a bridle onto Sugar and led her out of the stall. Once they were outside of the stable, Joseph took Allison’s hand. “I’ll help you up.” He patted the horse’s rump. He lifted her on top of the horse and then effortlessly climbed on behind her. He

handed the reins to Allison. “Do you want to ride astride?” She shook her head. As she sat sidesaddle, Train had one arm around her waist and with his other hand, he showed her how to hold the reins. “Are you sure?” “Why? Is that how you want me?” His crooked grin expressed his thoughts

differed from hers. “Astride on the horse, Mr. Spenser.” “I want you to see how it feels to fly.” “And I need to change positions for that?” “Yep.” He held her tighter as she spread her thighs and straddled the horse. Her voluminous skirt kept her skin from direct contact with the horse. “Ready.” She adjusted to

a comfortable position. “Tell Sugar where you want her to go.” Together they gave the horse a command to move with the flick of the reins. “We need to warm her up a bit.” “I feel like I’m going to fall off.” She laughed as the horse quickened her pace. “You’ll get used to it. Hold tight.” He laced his fingers with Allison’s while gripping a fist full of Sugar’s

mane. With his arm tightly wrapped around Allison, he hollered at the horse and dug in his heels. Sugar took off running. Allison leaned into Sugar’s neck and Joseph shifted bringing their bodies close enough to be one. The soft ground absorbed the impact of the horse’s hooves. Her heart raced at the same speed. Joseph moved his arm, unintentionally brushing the

underside of her breast. Her nipples tightened. Her breath hitched. Then she relaxed and gave Joseph her trust and control. His warm breath fanned against ear. “Close your eyes,” he whispered. “I won’t let you fall. You’ll feel like you’re flying.” She squeezed their linked fingers. “I want to see.” The ground blurred. They rode in the opposite direction of the

scorched hills, heading toward the side of the lake where the cattle grazed. For several minutes, they soared over the grounds. Then Joseph gently pulled on the reins. They slowed. Allison sat up and her head rolled back onto his chest. Laughter erupted from her gut and shattered the silence around them. She let go of the death grip she had on Sugar’s mane. The wind had whipped

her hair around her face. Her blood pumped through her veins. She put her hand to her heart to quell the rampant beating. The horse, tired from the exertion, snorted, bowed her head, and began a leisurely pace. Allison shifted to the side again. Joseph kept one arm wrapped around her back and the other lying across her lap as his hands held the reins. She rested her cheek

against him. “I smell the fire.” Her finger traced the striped pattern of his shirt. Beneath her fingertips, his defined muscles tensed and relaxed. “How bad was it?” She lifted her head and glanced into his face. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. He looked older than his twenty years with a shadow of a beard. “TJ could’ve lost everything.”

Allison wondered if perhaps she comforted the wrong man. Then she reminded herself that TJ sought comfort with someone else. She had to think about her own future. She didn’t want to spend her life watching TJ give his affection to another woman. She had to at least explore the possibility she could develop real feelings for Joseph. Flattening her hand

against his chest, she felt the rapid beating of his heart. “I wish I could tell you what you want to hear.” He kissed her temple. “You don’t have to say anything.” “You once said to put our cards on the table. I don’t want to mislead you. Or make promises I can’t keep.” She didn’t look at him, but instead fidgeted with the buttons of his shirt. “I wish TJ didn’t

have the memory of his wife keeping him from wanting a future. I might love him, I don’t know.” Train stiffened. She stopped touching his shirt and looked out into the distance. ”It doesn’t matter. I’m done trying to make him see me.” Now she looked into Joseph’s face. “I know it doesn’t feel good to be told you’re second choice.” She looked away again and swallowed hard.

Was she really about to give up any hope of being with TJ? “I guess I got just one question.” Their eyes met. “No polite way to ask a woman if she’s been with another man. I’m not talking in your previous employment. I don’t feel like that’s any of my business.” “I wasn’t a whore,” she interrupted. “I cleaned up after the best people I’ve ever

known. They took me in when I had nowhere else to go. And believe me, I was prepared to do what I had to not to go back to Boston. But those ladies saved me. But as for TJ, no, he never touched me.” She briefly closed her eyes, fighting back tears. “I’m not a whore.” She hoped she sounded convincing because kissing TJ underneath the tree had nearly turned her into one.

“I’m sorry I upset you.” He pressed her head back against his chest. “I could get over you being with other men, but not TJ. I couldn’t be with you knowing…knowing he’d been with you, too.” “Then you don’t have to worry.” But was her virtue in tact? She certainly wanted all the carnal feelings TJ invoked within her. She shifted, needing Joseph to know the whole truth. “I did kiss him.”

“I can handle that.” He smiled and put his hand on her thigh. The sun peeked over the mountains when they rode back to the ranch. They stopped in front of the house. Joseph slid from the horse, then wrapped his hands around Allison’s waist and lifted her down. He held her tightly for a moment, letting his hands rest on her hips, then he stepped back. “I’ll

rub her down good,” he said, patting the horse’s side. Allison gave Sugar a kiss on the neck. “Thank you. She’s wonderful, isn’t she?” “Yep. She’s beautiful… like you.” Allison turned to him and smiled. Train rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “What are you going to tell him?” He nodded toward the house. “I don’t know,” she said,

concern lacing her voice. “I’m afraid of what he’s going to say—of what he’ll do.” “You don’t need to be afraid of TJ. And you don’t need protect me. Tonight you’re ready to give up on him, but tomorrow might be different. So, for now, we’re friends seeing if there can’t be something more.” “Exploring the possibilities,” she said.

“It won’t be easy on me if you decide you want him and not me.” He smiled. Reaching out, he smoothed her hair. “Your curls have been kicked into a tangle of knots.” “I must be a fright.” She tried to right herself, but dropped her hands. She planned to crawl into bed anyway. Yawning, she covered her mouth. Just thinking about her soft pillow

made her tired. “I like you looking a bit messed.” He planned to kiss her again. She could see it when he narrowed his smoky eyes. His lips twitched. Her tongue touched her upper lip preparing for the tender touch of his. Before he hadn’t given her those wonderful pulses deep in her core. But she could make the kiss better this time. If she could unleash

his passion…feel his heated flesh and the mind numbing euphoria of desire. She had to see if Joseph could make her forget everything but the aching need between them. Standing on her tiptoes, she wrapped her arms around his neck. Joseph whispered her name, and pulled her close, crushing her breasts to his chest. Then his soft, gentle lips covered hers. He didn’t open his

mouth or steal her breath with his tongue. He didn’t wedge his leg between hers, forcing her to feel the heaviness of his arousal. Pressure built behind her eyes. He left her cold. Giving him a smile, she stepped back. “Thank you. For tonight. For understanding.” She only wished she understood what it was about TJ that had her by the heart.

“Whatever you decide.” He trailed a finger along her jaw. “We’ll still be friends, and I could never hate TJ. Although, I’ll be jealous as hell.” She kissed him on the cheek, turned, and hurried up the porch steps. “Goodnight, Joseph.”

Chapter Nine TJ reached down and picked up a handful of charred soil. He let the ash and dirt sift through his fingers. A group of men sat upon their horses waiting expectantly for his decision. “What do you think, boss?” “I think we got off

lucky.” He dusted his hands on his pants and mounted his horse. “We’ll have cattle out here next spring. The north fields are going to take a beating until winter, but we don’t have much choice. The cattle have to eat.” “Remember the floods,” one of the men said. “We faired pretty well,” Train added. “We lost more land to the lake than we did to this fire.”

“I’ll need a complete count. If we need to haul in feed for winter storage, we need to buy now. Wait too long and we won’t get a good price.” TJ spurred his horse forward. The horses pounded the ground as they headed back toward the ranch. The men tethered their mounts near the stables and began walking toward the shack. Cake had the aroma of ribs and cornbread drifting

through the air. “Where are you going?” TJ asked Train when he began walking in the opposite direction. “I’m going to see if Allison needs anything before we go back out. Probably won’t see her again until after dark.” TJ shoved his hands into his pockets. “If Allison needs anything, she’ll come to me.” Train straightened his

shoulders. “I’m referring to her personally. If she has a problem with the kids or the house, you can expect she’ll call on you.” “Train, I already told you to stay away from her.” “Why, so you can treat her like a whore from the brothel? Or are you just bothered because she’s interested in me?” “She isn’t right for you.” “You don’t have a say.

Like it or not, she wants to be with me.” He paused a moment. “She told me.” TJ clenched his fists. “Then she’s fond of both of us.” Train shook his head. “Maybe she was confused before. She told me what happened between the two of you.” Heat raced up TJ’s neck. “Bullshit.” He pushed past Train on the path.

“Don’t get angry with her. Be angry with yourself.” “Stay out of this.” “No.” Train followed him. “Stay here. I’m not asking. I’m tell you. Train, eat in the shack!” TJ strode up the path to the house. His footfalls landed hard against the wood planks. Throwing open the door, crashing it into the wall, TJ entered the house.

Allison came running from the kitchen. “What’s wrong?” “You tell me?” TJ’s hands shook. He slammed the door closed. “Shh. The children are napping, but they won’t be for long if you keep making noise. Do you want some lunch?” She headed back toward the kitchen. TJ followed her. “No, I want to talk.” He could barely

push the words past his lips. “What have I done to get your dander up this time?” she asked while she poured tea over a glass of ice for him. “How can you be sure I’m upset with you?” He didn’t sit down and didn’t take the drink from her hand. She set the tea on the table. “Because you wouldn’t be here otherwise.” “It smells good in here.

Were you expecting company?” “You wouldn’t be asking if you didn’t already know the answer.” She sat at the table. “What do you want? First you pursue me and then you humiliate me.” She rubbed her temples. “I feel like I’m going crazy inside— you’re driving me crazy, and I don’t like it. Joseph is kind and honest. He doesn’t make me guess what he wants.”

TJ leaned against the wall. Tension coiled in his gut. “Is that what you think I do, make you guess?” Allison slapped her palms on the table and stood. “Yes. You came right out and said you want me in your bed. But,” she said pointing a finger at his chest. “You could have bed me in the brothel, but you didn’t.” “You aren’t a whore.” She laughed. “You make

me feel like one. You’ve all but called me one.” Her words stung him as if she’d slapped his face. “Joseph treats me as I am, a lady. He’s kind, interested in my opinions, and wants more than sex. He talks to me.” “Courting. He’s courting you and that’s what you want?” “I learned a long time ago that you don’t always get what you want. Sometimes

you have to do what’s best.” She pushed her chair under the table and went to the sink. He walked up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “You want me, but you’ll settle for him,” he said, spinning her around to face him. Their eyes met. “I don’t see it as settling. My feelings for Joseph will grow with time.” “It doesn’t work that

way. We live in the same house. We see each other every day. You can’t get me out of here,” he said, poking a finger at her forehead, “when I’m already in here.” He put his hand on her chest, over her heart and sliding his palm between her breasts. She swatted his hand away. “You’ve got it wrong, TJ. I tried to convince my heart there was more between us when there isn’t. This time

I’m listening to my head.” “You’ll hurt him, and you’re too foolish to see it.” TJ turned and strode out the kitchen door. TJ saw Train as soon as he entered the shack. He’d been watching the door because Train stood and approached him holding his hat. Before he had a chance to speak, TJ pointed to the door. “Mount up.” He gave Train’s shoulder a squeeze as

he passed him. “We’ll talk when we’re alone.” Train nodded and a moment later, they left. Out in the field, TJ maneuvered his horse next to Train’s. “Rain didn’t do much for the drought. We’d need a few weeks of storms to salvage the crops this year,” TJ said. Train scanned the horizon of dried out vegetation. “Reckon you’re

right on that.” They rode quietly for a few more minutes. “You brought me out here to talk. Let’s hear it.” “She doesn’t love you.” The lines around Train’s eyes deepened. “I know.” “You want a woman who pines for another man.” Train raised his eyebrows and smiled his crooked grin. “Who? You?” TJ didn’t answer Train’s

question, but posed one of his own. “Do you remember the first day you brought her up to the house?” Train nodded as he rolled a cigarette. “Not something easy to forget.” “No, she made quite an impression.” Train chuckled. “You could say that.” “I thought Janelle was the only woman who would ever understand my ways. It

never bothered her to be isolated out here on the ranch. When Allison showed up in her city dress and Boston accent, I thought she’d never take to ranch life. I was wrong. She belongs here.” He took a deep breath. “But not with you.” “We’ve fought enough over this.” Train pulled on the reins bringing his horse to a stop. “Are you telling me to stay away from her again?”

TJ shook his head. “No.” He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m asking you. She’s different. Around her, I’m different. Please, give me a chance to get my head figured out. She makes me want for more than I have.” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I need her.” Train sighed. “I won’t pursue her, but I won’t refuse any advance she makes

toward me. It’s her decision, always has been.” Train started his horse moving again. “I don’t want a woman coming between us.” TJ agreed.

Chapter Ten TJ cancelled the Fourth of July festivities. Although disappointed, Allison, along with everyone else understood. Cleaning up the fire was going to take time. Several buildings on the ranch fed the inferno. Thankfully, no lives were lost. The rest of the summer

would be spent rebuilding and getting ready for winter. Allison established a routine with the children that included breakfast and coffee with TJ every morning. With the extra work, he missed supper many nights. The children were getting used to it. Allison, not as much. Tonight was no different. The children were sleeping, the house was quiet and Allison was alone. She kept supper

warm, but she didn’t know if TJ would be awake enough to eat. Fifteen hours on a horse in the fields wore a body down. Footfalls sounded on the porch. Allison peered through the windows. TJ. She rushed and opened the door before he reached for the handle. He walked past her and hung his hat on the coat tree. “Can I get you something to eat?” she asked, closing the

door behind him. He plopped onto the couch and tugged off a boot. “Just coffee if you’ve got it.” “Fresh and hot.” She went to the kitchen. He might not want to eat, but he needed to. She ladled stew into a bowl. He joined her a few moments later. “You didn’t have to go to any trouble.” He sat at the bowl of soup. “I’m exhausted.” He ground the

palms of his hands into his eyes. She wondered if his broad shoulders ever tired from the burden he carried. The men all looked to him for leadership. He never seemed to be indecisive. Allison set a piece of cornbread in front of him. “Eat,” she said. “I’ll be back in a minute.” With his chair balancing

on its back legs, TJ rested his head against the kitchen wall. Shadows cast by the wall sconces danced along the table and ceiling. This house wasn’t Janelle’s anymore. Every time he walked in the front door, he smelled the oils Allison rubbed on after her bath. Once he could even smell it on his pillow. Without consulting him, she’d made new curtains for the windows in the rooms that

faced east. The sun had bleached the ones Janelle had purchased from a catalog when he built the house. Until the fire scorched the land, Allison had taken Sissy and Michael into the hills close to the house and picked flowers for the table. Sissy told him Allison liked flowers because they reminded her of home. He wondered how much she missed her family in Boston. He realized then he wanted

his house to be her home. He didn’t want her to miss any part of her former life. “Come with me.” Allison held out her hand to him. He looked at her with half-closed eyes. Then he leaned forward, righting his chair on the floor. He held her hand as she led him upstairs. Lamps along the wall illuminated pale light from the low flames. She stopped in front of the bathroom and

opened the door. She had the tub filled with steaming, hot water. She clasped her hands behind her back. “If you leave something on,” she said, her cheeks turning pink. “Just take off your shirt or… something,” she stammered. “As long as you’re covered up, I’ll work the knots out of your back.” He stood in front of her, meeting her apprehensive

gaze, and undid the buttons of his shirt. Twisting, he slipped the shirt from his body. Allison feasted on the finely chiseled contours of his suntanned chest covered by just the right amount of swirling, dark hair. His stomach, tight with muscles, rippled as if more than just her stare had touched him. A thin trail of hair bisected his abdominals, disappearing

below his bellybutton into the waistband of his jeans. The bulge of his cock behind his jeans flexed. She turned from him. “Cover up certain areas and I’ll come back.” She quickly left the room, closing the door. Allison’s hand trembled, holding the doorknob. There was definitely no comparison between TJ and Joseph. Although both men had

desirable qualities, TJ left Allison weak. Her legs liquefied. She ached to put her hands on his body. Now that she found a way, she wondered if it was a very good idea. Water splashed as he slipped into the tub. Dear Lord, he’s naked. Joseph had never caused wetness between her legs as TJ did to her now. “Allison, you can come

in.” She took a steadying breath and opened the door. He had been kind enough to turn the lamps low, leaving only enough of a flicker so not to extinguish the flame. She approached the tub with trepidation because she couldn’t tell whether he had covered up or not. She sighed in relief. TJ had wrapped a towel around the lower half of his

body. Under the water, it clung to the planes of his thighs. “Lean forward,” she instructed. While she was filling the tub, she had placed a stool at one end. Rolling up her sleeves, she sat and picked up the bottle of liniment she’d left on the floor. After pouring a small amount in her hands, she vigorously rubbed them together to warm the oil.

Hesitantly at first, she touched his shoulder. The muscles just under the skin tightened under her fingers. “You have to relax.” She pushed her palm firmly against his shoulder blade and began to do circular motions. His muscles were hard beneath her fingertips. Heat from the water, or from the warmth of his skin, flowed up her arms. Steam created a moist cocoon. Her breath

mingled with the herbal scent of the oil. She’d never been with a naked man except for Mr. Clark at the Dusty Rose. She closed her eyes, imaging her hands on Mr. Clark rather than TJ. It didn’t help her wayward meanderings of what it would be like to have their positions reversed. To have TJ’s hands roaming over her body, touching her breasts

as he spread her thighs. Her nipples tightened and her sex grew hot and wet. Her own breathy pants sounded loud in her ears. Oh, how this man turned her into knots. Opening her eyes, she focused on the task rather than hard, muscular body she wanted pressed against hers. Shifting to the side, she used all her strength to rub the tension from his shoulders.

TJ moaned, his head dropping forward. Allison glanced over his shoulder and her heart kicked into a rampant gallop. His cock, hard, thick and long, swelled beneath the towel molded to his groin. She chewed the corner of her lip and wondered how he’d feel in her hand. Marion had told her too many details. Now all Allison could think about was the wickedly devious acts a

woman—a whore—could do for a man. Allison wanted TJ in those ways, in her mouth, in her body. To get closer, Allison opened her legs straddling the back of the tub. The spread of her thighs sent shivers over her skin. She rocked on the stool, trying desperately to find a position to ease the ache between her legs. Alas, only TJ would appease the building need within her.

Taking a cup from the floor, she filled it with water and poured it over his neck and shoulders. He was finally relaxing. The muscles softened. She continued to rub and pour water over him. The drenched sides of her dress clung to her thighs and the front was soaked, molding to her body. “Have you given many massages?” He rolled his shoulders and stretched his

neck from one side to the other. “Actually, my mother thought ladies of society should be pampered, hence my experience. Although, I have never received one in a bathtub. This would be the first one I’ve ever given. Lean back,” she told him. As he reclined against the back of the tub, she realized the position would put his head into her lap. Her hands stilled

in the air above him. “This is better.” He rolled his head from side to side letting the folds of her dress wrap around his ears. He looked up into her face and smiled. She looked at his position and hers, deciding she couldn’t massage his shoulders this way. If she leaned forward, her breasts would be in his face. “Um, I guess you have to sit up a

little more.” She slipped her hands under his arms. He chuckled, but sat up until his back rested against the tub and his neck supported his head. Reaching around, her hands worked the upper part of his chest, and across the top of his shoulders. “Why did you leave home?” Her fingers stilled for a moment and then continued

to press into his chest. “The whole story or the abridged version?” she asked. “Details are good.” He leaned his head against her upper arm as she worked a particularly tense area. “Ouch! Too hard.” He flinched. “Sorry.” She lightened her touch. “I lived in Boston. My father comes from an influential family with new money although he doesn’t

much care. My mother on the other hand, lives for pampering and finery. She loves money. As far as I can tell, it’s the only qualification she needed for a husband.” Her hands weren’t working the muscles as much as they were running over the contours of his chest. Allison thought of her parents and transported back. She imagined her father, with his cigars, and his jolly

disposition. He changed around her mother. “It feels like a lifetime since I’ve seen them.” She grew quiet for a moment, then continued. “My mother’s only aspiration in life is to see what she can get from people. She’s always looking for better than she has. My father can’t make her happy unless he’s giving in to her demands.” Her fingers stopped to touch the silky hair

between his pectoral muscles. “It seems her ambitions extend to her children.” A tear filled her eye. She quickly blinked it away. “Henry Oakdale asked for my hand in marriage. I refused.” She plunged her hand into the tub and filled the small cup with water. She poured it across TJ’s chest. “She convinced my father it would be in my best interest to marry. He forced the

engagement, so I left.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. The sting of her father’s betrayal as painful now as it was the night she left. “That’s it.” At least, that was all she was willing to share. She stood from the stool, wiping her hands on her wet skirt. Water splashed onto the floor when TJ grabbed her wrist. “Seems your leaving an awful lot unsaid. What about

the man? Do you suppose he’s wondering what happened to his fiancée?” “No. He’s well aware of my reasons for leaving.” She pulled her hand away. “And he agreed? It seems unlikely if he asked for your hand.” “He didn’t really ask. Therefore, he didn’t agree. That doesn’t suggest he’ll be surprised. We rarely saw eye to eye.” She put a towel next

to him. “You’re turning into a prune and the water’s growing cold.” She stepped to the door, and then turned to him before leaving. “I’ll see you in the morning.” “Thank you, Allison.” She smiled and closed the door. * * * * * A few days passed. TJ had taken his time with Allison. He didn’t want to push her, and he knew she

was still struggling with her guilt over Train. But his emotions had only become clearer. Allison belonged with him. Now he just had to find a way to get through to her. The morning was still dark. But the sun would be up in a couple of hours. “I’m going to Copper City. Train was going to join me and then changed his mind. He said he isn’t up for trip.” He sipped

his coffee, watching Allison’s reaction over the rim of his cup. “You know a reason why he wouldn’t want to go?” “I wouldn’t have a clue.” She swung around and faced him. “It might be because every time you’re around, he seems to be busy riding the fences. At times you infuriate me.” She tossed the cloth she had been washing the counters with into the sink.

“You act as if you’re jealous. You don’t want Joseph near me and don’t deny it. But you,” she said in a disgusted tone. “You want Sandy when I’ve all but thrown myself at you.” She slapped a hand to her forehead. “I can feel a headache coming on. Nothing new considering you tend to bring out the worst in me. I’ve always had a temper. Until I met you, I never had a difficult time controlling it.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “This might come as a surprise, but the kiss we shared wasn’t that special. I want more than what you’ve offered.” She walked out of the kitchen. A moment later, the front door slammed. He waited a few minutes before following. Finding Allison in the stable, crooning to her horse, he asked, “Will you go with me?”

“Where?” She didn’t look up, but kept her eyes glued to Sugar’s back. “Copper City. You can visit with Marion, and Sandy can tell you I haven’t touched her since I kissed you.” Allison put down the brush and sat on a pail next to Sugar’s stall. TJ continued, “You’re right about some of what you were saying in the kitchen. I’m not one for talking. I

assume my actions convey my intentions.” He dropped to his haunches beside her, resting his forearms on his thighs. “You confuse me. I don’t know what to do. What do you want?” He took her hands in his and spoke quietly. “The kiss was special.” He leaned in and pulled her close at the same time. He smelled roses just before he covered her

mouth with his own. He let go of her hands and gently clasped her around the ribcage. He pulled her tighter when her arms wrapped around his neck. He growled, slipping his tongue into her moist mouth. Tasting her tongue, sealing their lips, he kissed her deeply. Releasing her lips, he buried his face in her neck. “I’m not asking you to come with me to keep you away

from Train. Go because you want to be with me.” “I don’t know.” She weaved her fingers into his hair. He heard the hesitation in her voice. “I’d like to leave in about an hour. You don’t have to worry. I’m not asking Train to take care of Sissy and Tiger. Betty wants to take the children.” “You already asked her?” She pushed him a few inches

away. “I had to.” He paused a moment. “Look Allison, I don’t want to see Train hurt either. Tell him the only reason you’re going is to visit the friends you made in town. We need time away from the ranch. Together. Alone.” “I would like to see Marion. I’ll go, but I won’t pretend to be something I’m not. I won’t play house.” She didn’t wait for a reply. She

left him in the stables. Allison wouldn’t say anything to TJ, but her heart pounded and her hands shook. A trip to Copper City sounded wonderful. As much as she enjoyed her place at the ranch, she missed the friends she’d made at the Dusty Rose. When she’d left Boston and come to Montana, she’d proved she could take care of herself even if that

had meant working on her back in the brothel. Most people, she decided, had to work for the life they wanted. TJ tapped on her bedroom door. “Ready?” “Yes. I’ll be down in a minute.” She’d changed into comfortable traveling clothes. Instead of wearing her hair up in a bun, she braided it down her back. She grabbed her garment bag, tossed in a change of clothes, and went

to the kitchen. Breathing deeply, Allison sucked in the delicious smells of breakfast. “You cooked?” she asked, looking over TJ’s shoulder. In a pan, he had eggs and sizzling bacon. “Yes, and I’ve already taken the children to Betty. I realize you need time away from Sissy and Michael. I haven’t given it to you.” He slid the eggs and bacon onto a plate. “Sit down. I’m going to

serve you for a change.” Allison did as he asked, and he set her breakfast in front of her. “Coffee?” “Yes, thank you.” He brought her a steaming cup. “It’s no wonder they call you mama. That’s exactly the role I put you in.” He sat across from her. “The way you’ve taken to them surprises me. A lot about you surprises me.”

“So you don’t regret hiring me?” She snapped into a crispy piece of bacon. “I have more regrets than a man could count, but bringing you here isn’t one of them.” He glanced down then raised his gaze to hers again. “The children need you.” She swallowed past the tightness in her throat. “Good.” She’d wanted to hear that he needed her. But some things weren’t meant to be.

After they finished eating, TJ loaded the wagon while Allison took care of the breakfast dishes. Finally, they were on their way. The first part of the journey took place in the hour before dawn. Neither spoke much. The sound of the wagon creaking along the road seemed loud in the hollow canyon. The landscape changed after they left the open valley of the

ranch. The road wound between two towering mountains. Jagged rocks protruded from the cliffs. A few had broken free and lay along the narrow path. The sun rose into the sky, and by late morning, sweat began to bead along Allison’s brow. “You never did tell me why we’re going into town.” TJ hesitated in answering. “Supplies,” he finally said. “There’s a

clearing about a mile up the road. Are you ready for a break?” “Yes,” she said, looking at him curiously. They continued in silence. A few minutes later, TJ pulled the rig off the worn road. “TJ, we’ve argued an awful lot lately,” she said, taking food and water from the back of the wagon. TJ put feedbags filled with oats over the horse’s

heads. “We’ve argued since the day we met. I wasn’t exactly calm when you showed up on my ranch looking for work.” Allison spread a blanket on the ground. “I remember. However, that wasn’t our first meeting.” She adjusted her skirts and dropped to the ground. “My heel stuck in a gap between two planks on the train platform the day I arrived in Copper City.

Before I could make a spectacle of myself, you caught my fall.” She looked away from his blue eyes mirroring the Montana sky. A light breeze teased the hair on his forehead. “I remember,” he said, smiling. “If I recall, you told me to get my hands off you.” “Something like that, I’m sure.” She closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun. “And if I touched you

now?” he asked, moving closer and sitting next to her. She opened her eyes. She caught a whiff of his scent— clean, woodsy. A smell that released butterflies in her belly—like the night of the fire when she buried her nose in his bed pillow. Her heart fluttered and started to race. Anticipation of his touch vibrated through her body. Tightening. Terrifying. She looked into his eyes. “I don’t

want to fight anymore.” He leaned in, and his breath fanned on her face. “I only want to fight if we can kiss and make up.” She ground her teeth and clenched her fists. “That’s what I’m talking about,” she said, exasperated. “You’re never serious unless you’re angry. And then you explode. I want you to be open and honest with me when we’re not fighting!” On the verge of

tears, she turned away. “When you’re out in the fields,” she said. “I wish you were with me at the house. But when you are there, most of the time I want you to go back out to the fields.” She paused. “I don’t enjoy our relationship.” TJ leaned back against a tree and briefly closed his eyes. “I have a confession.” He picked up a rock and chucked it, hitting a nearby

boulder. “I asked Train to stay away from you. Knowing how close you two had become made me crazy.” Her head snapped up. “Why are you telling me this?” “I know you love me.” TJ leaned across the blanket and gently kissed her lips. “You’re supposed to tell me what you feel. I don’t have a problem expressing my emotions. Or verbalizing

them.” “You’re just not listening.” “A woman wants to hear the words.” The caress of his lips on her mouth set her aflame. Persuasive, and demanding, she moved against him as he slanted his mouth, applying pressure for her to open to him. Parting her lips, his tongue danced with hers. She tasted what she imagined

when TJ was in her thoughts —the mountains, clean air, and the beauty of the ranch. Rugged and strong, and totally safe. TJ pulled back and wrapped his hands around her neck resting his thumbs along her collarbone. “I know you care about me even if you don’t say the words.” Moving close to her, his lips gently tugged on her ear.

“What do you feel for me?” she asked. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I need you.” He kissed along her jaw. Her fingernails clung to his arm. He supported her back while he positioned her on the ground. Through the fabric of her blouse, he covered her breast. He searched her face for traces of hesitation. Her fingers fumble with the

bottom button of his shirt. Impatient to have her touching his flesh, he ripped the shirt from his body. She ran her hands along his stomach, tracing the trail of hair with her fingers. His muscles quivered under her touch. Bracing his upper body with his forearm, he rolled onto his side and stretched out beside her. TJ never took his eyes off hers while he undid the

buttons of her blouse. She wore a white, cotton camisole underneath. The creamy swell of her breast pressed against the fabric. He fingered the delicate lace at the neckline. “You’re trembling.” He put his fingers where her pulse beat. Skimming lower, he brushed her nipple. Then he lowered his mouth and covered the raised peak. Wet from his tongue, the fabric clung to her skin revealing

the dark, pink areola. He rolled the tight bud between his thumb and finger. Allison sucked in a sharp inhale. Her body trembled. Her head rolled to the side as her back arched. “Open your eyes. Watch me love you.” TJ pulled on the string holding the front of her camisole together. Parting the fabric, he exposed her breasts to the summer air. Her

nipples tightened to hard points. “Beautiful.” He breathed in the scent of roses while he traced around the nipple. Sliding his palm beneath her breast, he lifted the full weight. Smooth and soft, he ached to explore with his mouth where his hand touched. He had to taste the silky smoothness of her skin. He drew his tongue over the swell. His body responded, his cock hard and throbbing.

He gently sucked her nipple into his mouth. Allison moaned as she arched into him. Partially covering her body with his own, TJ buried his face in her neck. “You’re more beautiful than in my dreams.” Allison ran her hands down his side tracing each rib beneath taut flesh. “Have you dreamed about me?” She

pushed on his stomach until he rolled to his back. Her hand slid sensually over his chest, combing the springy hair with her nails. He growled. “You’d hate me if I were to tell you the things I’ve done to you in my dreams.” Her finger circled around his nipple. Leaning over him, she tasted him. His nipple hardened beneath her tongue just as hers had done.

Her eyes widened in surprise when TJ put his hands down the front of his trousers, taking his cock in hand and shifting it upright. Now she could clearly see the outline of his erection. Without thinking of the consequences, she traced him with her hand. As if she had released a wild animal, he came upon her, pushing her back onto the blanket. His hand took

hold of her breast as his lips claimed hers. His tongue speared into her mouth, his thigh slicing between hers as he ground his cock into her. She writhed beneath him. Straining to press her body to his; thighs, hips and chests touching. Flames of desire arced between them. Hot, desperate, aching. Raw, gritty. Allison might be a lady, and she wanted TJ’s

love. But like this, his hands mouth and body making her crazy with lust, she desperately needed to be his whore. Joseph’s haunting words weaved into her thoughts. That this would all she would ever have. Would his passion be enough? She wrestled with her thoughts as TJ rained hot wet kisses over her body. She did love him. He had to care for her, too, didn’t he? Lord

help her, did she care? Moving from her breast, TJ ran his hand over her stomach and palmed the curve of her hip. He slipped the button at the side of her skirt from its loop. She tensed when she felt his rough hand against her bare skin. He stopped. “Don’t,” she whispered. “I want you to touch me.” She pulled his face to hers and kissed him openly. With

boldness she didn’t know she possessed, she undid his trousers and took his erection into her trembling hand. She wrapped her fingers around the hot, solid girth. With her thumb, she touched the soft, spongy tip, smearing the slick fluid. TJ pulled on her arm forcing her to let go. He eased her thighs apart and ground against her center. Instinctively, she wrapped her

legs around him. He braced himself above her with his arms. Putting his hand under her dress, he ripped the stitches of her underclothes. Allison couldn’t catch her breath when he touched her intimately. His finger slid against the wet seam of her sex, then slipped deeper, sinking into her center. “Oh. Oh.” A shiver of fiery heat streaked long her spine. She

snapped her thighs closed, but TJ was there keeping her legs open. A second finger slipped inside her. “TJ.” She couldn’t breathe. “Easy.” Slowly at first, he stretched her with his finger. “There’s never been anyone else?” “Never,” she said on a gasp. “You’re beautiful.” He grazed his finger across her clitoris then once again, he

plunged his finger deeper into her. “TJ! Too much.” Every muscle tensed. Building pressure numbed her mind. She shook her head. Her breath came fast. “You’re so tight. I wanted to touch you like this that day on the bluff.” He stroked her, creating a fire with friction. “Dear heaven.” Her breath matched his rhythm.

Her hips pumped, rubbing her sensitive flesh against his hand. She locked her thighs around his arm. Her body tightened. “TJ,” she whispered. Light exploded behind her closed eyes. Euphoric flashes pulsed through her body. She cried out, her body convulsing in rapturous pleasure. As the final spasms ebbed, she relaxed, once again lying flat on the blanket

on the ground. TJ shifted between her thighs, positioning the head of his cock at her entrance. “Are you certain? There’s no going back.” Nodding her head in understanding, she bent her knees and raised her hips to meet his. TJ gritted his teeth and entered her body slowly. “You’re so small. I’m going

to hurt you.” “It burns.” He pushed a fraction deeper into her. “I’m scared.” He brushed her lips with his. “Hold me tight.” Hoping to shorten her discomfort and knowing he couldn’t ease the pain, with a full thrust, he buried himself. Gripping his shoulders, her cry echoed off the canyon walls.

“Shh. Hold still,” he whispered, kissing tears from her cheeks. After a moment, he slowly pulled out. She twisted beneath him. “Better?” he asked, filling her again. She bit her lip and nodded. He put his hand between their bodies and found her clitoris within her soft nest of curls. Stroking it gently, he began to move. He kept her desire building with

his kiss, his tongue, thrusting and possessing. He rocked into her with a slow deep plunge, rearing back and filling her again. Her tight walls gloved to his shaft. She was so small, petite, yet full of raw, gritty passion. She locked her legs around him, raising her hips to meet his thrusts. He grinned as she growled, digging her nails into his back as she took him

with the same ferocious intensity. “It’s happening again.” Allison cried out as her body crested the illusive peak, her contracting sheath milking him. Pressure pooled at the base of his spine. Heat surged into his cock and balls. TJ couldn’t hold on. Losing the edge, he erupted. Allison held tightly, riding the wave of his release.

TJ released a heavy exhale and rested his head against her shoulder. For a moment, neither moved. Finally, TJ rolled onto his back and stared at the sky. Fluffy, white clouds towered above the highest peak. Deafening silence stretched out between them. “Please, say something.” Because he had no idea what to say. She sat up and covered

her breasts. “We should get going.” He handed over the tie of her camisole. “Allison,” he began. “I’m fine,” she interrupted, clutching her top together. She turned away from him and rethreaded the loops. After righting her blouse, she tried to stand. She flinched, and her knees buckled. “Sugar, let me help.”

“Only if you promise never to call me Sugar again.” He wrapped his arm around her waist so she could lean on him for support. “You might think it’s sweet to name me after a horse. I don’t.” She tried to laugh. TJ put a thick blanket on the buckboard before helping her to sit. “The ride’s going to be a bit bumpy. Let me know if you need me to stop.” “I’m shaky, but fine.

Honestly.” “Woman, you’ll be the death of me.” He smiled as he climbed onto the buckboard, but fear had his heart in a vise. He hated not knowing what thoughts swirled in her overly analytical mind. He clenched his jaw and flicked the reins. God, he hoped it wasn’t regret.

Chapter Eleven The sun dipped low on the horizon when they arrived in Copper City. Allison compared town life to the ranch. Men shouted on the streets and loud music drifted out of the many saloons along the boardwalk. If there were crickets to hear, one wouldn’t know it. The only wildlife

drank at the bar and patronized the rooms above. TJ drove the team to the livery. “We’ll get a room before we get something to eat.” “I need to freshen up.” Allison held to his shoulders while he lifted her off the buckboard. “Take as long as you need.” “Feels like forever since I was here.” She wrapped her

arm around his. Then he escorted her to the hotel. “I know this building,” she said as they entered the lobby. “It was still under construction when I first arrived.” Chandeliers hung overhead while plush rugs lines the floors. Copper statuary sat upon glass-topped tables and beautiful leather furniture surrounded a large fireplace with a marble mantle. Allison hadn’t seen a

hotel like this since she’d left Boston. TJ lead her to the front desk. “Good evening, Travers.” “Mr. Bester, it’s nice to see you.” The man bowed his head. “Your usual suite?” TJ nodded. “My wife and I are on our honeymoon.” “Congratulations.” He beamed. “Mrs. Bester, how nice it is to meet you.” His grin stretched across his face.

“Sam,” he called to the porter while ringing a bell. “Please take Mr. and Mrs. Bester’s bags to his suite.” He leaned forward. “If you should like anything special,” he said in a low voice. “I will see it is brought to your room.” “Nothing now. It has been a long day. My wife would like to rest a spell.” He possessively wrapped his arm around her shoulders, escorted her across the lobby,

and to their room. Once in private, she asked, “Why did you tell them we were married?” “Because my dear Allison, we will be.” He cupped her face in his hands and brought their lips together. She wedged her hands between them. “TJ, I didn’t make love to you to get a proposal. I knew the consequences.” And she

hadn’t cared. He smiled. “As did I. I am going to marry you.” He kissed her quickly and then went into a separate bathing room. “I’ll make a bath ready for you.” A few minutes later, steaming water and lavender scented bubbles filled the tub. TJ left her alone to undress. She stripped out of her clothing and sank into the water. Her muscles were sore,

but the delicious ache between her legs reminded her of what she’d done and how much she wanted TJ again. A soft knock sounded on the door a second before it opened. “I had them bring up a cup of tea,” he said, entering the room. “Have you ever seen such a thing?” She laughed as she blew a handful of bubbles at him.

“Never, you’re beautiful.” He turned and set the cup of tea on the vanity. Their eyes met in the large mirror hanging on the wall. The moment grew heavy and intimate. TJ stripped out of his shirt and then began to remove his trousers. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Exactly what it looks like.” Dropping his drawers,

he stood in front of her—fully aroused. His erection jutted forward, thick and pulsing, from a thatch of dark curly hair. His balls hung heavy between his legs. As she stared, his abdominals tightened. Two muscles carved a vee into his groin. “Can I join you?” She nodded, her mouth too dry to speak. The rest of her was wet and twitching for his touch. Her heart didn’t

beat, but seemed to flutter in her chest. Heat bloomed within her, yet she shivered. TJ stalked closer. She froze. “Slide forward,” he said, and climbed in behind her. He linked their legs together and pulled her against him. “Do you still hurt?” “A little tender.” But she wanted him again, deep. His weight, heavy against her chest, and his hips spreading her thighs. She glanced at his

face just inches from hers. “I’m sorry.” He tightened his hold as his eyes closed, and he leaned his head back. “Don’t be. I’m not.” She sank a little deeper, her skin sliding along his. TJ wrapped his arms around her waist. Several minutes passed as TJ’s hands roamed over her body. Allison’s eyes closed and she reveled in the touch, the intimacy, but she wanted

more. She wanted him penetrating her body with his. She shifted, feeling the hardness of his erection press against her back. “Will you marry me?” He waited for her reply, but she remained quiet. “Tomorrow.” Water sloshed out of the tub as she sat up. “We can’t get married tomorrow!” She stood and stepped out of the tub. Water pooled on the

floor as she wrapped up in a thick, purple towel. The dark gleam in his eyes expressed what she needed to know of his thoughts. TJ leaned back, and stretched his arms out along the sides of the tub. “Why not? You can ask Marion to stand with you as your maid of honor.” “You wouldn’t care that a whore stood beside me?” She put her hands on her hips.

“Hell, no. I’ll ask Sandy to be my best man. I owe her.” Allison rolled her eyes. “I love Sandy too, but that doesn’t mean I want your mistress at my wedding.” “I don’t keep a mistress anymore.” He stood and stepped out of the bath with no regard for modesty. Water dripped onto the floor around him. “Well, I’m not getting

married tomorrow.” “When? Because let me tell you, we are getting married.” “You must think because I spread my legs for you, that you own me. We already determined I’m not a whore. You can’t buy me with a bubble bath.” Allison turned and walked out of the room. TJ followed her. “What do you want, for me to stand on the street and profess my

love for you? I will if that is what it’ll take for you to say yes.” She dropped the towel and put on a clean dress. “No, that isn’t what I need. And if you really believe that, then I guess our fighting is going to continue.” She growled and stomped her foot. “You’re a jackass.” The stupid, stubborn, irrational jackass she’d given both her heart and body to.

“Where are you going?” TJ wrapped a towel around his waist. “None of your business,” she said. “I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to.” “I want to marry you!” “I’m not marrying someone who doesn’t love me.” “I do love you.” “I don’t believe you.” Twisting her hair on top of

her head, she secured it in place with an abalone and silver clip. She stood at the room door. “I am not one of your ranch hands. I don’t follow orders or respond to demands.” She slammed it closed. Figuring TJ would follow, she nearly sprinted through the lobby of the hotel. Someone reached out and grabbed her by the arm. She let out a scream.

Thinking TJ had beaten her to the lobby, she whirled around. And choked on the word, “Henry.” “I thought I saw you checking in earlier. How are you, Allison?” She couldn’t respond, didn’t know what to say. Blood drained from her head. Darkness closed in around her. She struggled to focus. She had to get out of the hotel before TJ caught up with her.

“What are you doing here? How did you find me?” The arrogant smirk she had grown to hate, leered back at her. “What makes you think I’d be looking for you? I happen to be on a wedding trip to California.” Allison stiffened her shoulders and shrugged off his touch. “Poor girl.” She snapped a glance over her shoulder. As much as she’d like to drill Henry about her

family—her father—she had to get out of the hotel. “I’m in a hurry. Have a nice life.” Perhaps once, Henry could have powered over her, but not anymore. She’d met a real man—a Montana man and he was a far greater threat. And he would be looking for her. “I need a drink or at least, a cup of coffee.” She didn’t wait for a response from Henry. His reasons for being in Copper City held no

relevance to her. Turning from him, she hurried out of the lobby, and onto the street. Henry jogged to keep up with her quick step. “Slow down, Allison.” He took hold of her arm and brought her to a stop on the street. “What is the matter with you? Are you in some kind of trouble? I could be persuaded to be of assistance, for a price.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m

sure that would satisfy you to no end. I, on the other hand, would be sick.” She looked around wildly for a place to hide. “Yes.” Across the street, a restaurant advertised meatloaf. Although windows ran the entire length of the building, it would have to do. Let TJ wonder where she went. His first stop would be the brothel…and she wouldn’t be there. A smile curled her lips. “I have to

go.” She walked away from Henry. “We need to talk.” He followed her. “No, we don’t.” She entered the diner and found a booth seat next to the front window. Henry sat across from her as the waitress approached. “Coffee, actually, make it a beer with the chicken special.” “Alcohol,” Henry said

with pursed lips. “Allison, the West has changed you.” “More than you know.” Henry perused the menu before deciding on chopped steak and glass of red wine. “What are you looking for?” Allison hadn’t taken her eyes off the street. “Nothing,” she said, folding her arms on top of the table. “How is my family?” “I wouldn’t think you cared after the way you

humiliated them.” “I was the one humiliated. And we both know how.” Red crawled up his next and his lips thinned. Then the Henry Oakdale mask fell into place. She nearly laughed when she remembered how she once feared him. After knowing men like TJ and Joseph, she recognized Henry as a coward. “My God, what have you

been doing to yourself? You look like hell.” His lips turned up in a snarl. “My appearance is not your concern. My father, Henry, how is he?” “Dead, I’m afraid.” A flash of amusement lit his features. “Shortly after you ran off. Your mother has remarried, a younger man, I believe. A widower with two small children. I suppose you can consider yourself cut out

of the will. It appears as though everyone finds you easy to replace.” Allison lowered her head and folded the napkin in her lap. “She destroyed Papa just as she would have me if I’d stayed.” “Are you going to introduce us?” TJ slid in next to her. Allison’s head snapped up, and her body stiffened as his hip bumped hers.

“Excuse me, Sir, but you are interrupting our supper,” Henry said. The waitress arrived then with Allison’s beer and Henry’s wine. She asked if she could get TJ something to drink before continuing to another table. “I’d like the name of the man having supper with my wife.” He took a swallow of Allison’s beer and kept his hand wrapped around the

glass. “I’m not your wife,” Allison spat. “We have something in common.” Henry leaned back and swirled the wine in his glass. “Henry Oakdale, TJ Bester.” Allison wanted to crawl underneath the nearest rock. “I’m sure you have plenty to talk about so if you’ll excuse me.” TJ gripped her arm with

the strength of a charging bull. Tension rolled off him waves like heat on a piece of steel in the hot, summer sun. “Sit down, Sugar,” he said, his voice like syrup, far too sweet. “We haven’t had supper.” Allison couldn’t eat the food if she’d wanted to. “So how do you and Allison know each other?” TJ popped a piece of Allison’s chicken into his mouth.

Allison snorted. TJ was well aware of her acquaintance with Henry. Just this afternoon, she’d opened her heart when she told him about the engagement. He wasn’t entitled to any more information. She had purposefully kept the details vague. No doubt, whatever Henry said, he’d slant in his favor. Allison asked the waitress for another beer.

Hopefully, by the time she drank it, she wouldn’t care what either one of them said about her. “I’m surprised she hasn’t mentioned me considering we were engaged.” “Oh yes,” she said, seething. “You were engaged in something, but it wasn’t with me.” Impatient with the waitress, she took TJ’s beer and guzzled. “I wouldn’t diminish

what happened between us.” His lecherous leer soured her stomach. “You soiled my name once. I’ll have your tongue before I allow you to do so again. Shall I remind you of your own words? I have nothing left to lose, but perhaps you do. Should we ask your bride to join us?” “Do not threaten me!” “Then let me,” TJ interrupted.

“No, TJ.” She put her hand on his arm. “I no longer need to justify myself to anyone.” She finished his beer. “Believe what you want.” She wiped her mouth on a napkin. “It’s time for me to say goodnight. Henry, I would say it’s been nice seeing you, but we both know the truth. I appreciate the information about my family. If you see either of my brothers, please let them

know I’m fine. I’m tired and I’m leaving.” She pushed on TJ until he moved out of her way. “This will take care of the meal,” TJ said, tossing a couple bills on the table. Henry lifted his glass of wine. “It’s always exciting with Allison. But then, I can tell you already know.” TJ leaned down. “If I see you again in Copper City, I’ll see you’re buried here.”

TJ caught up with Allison on the street. She walked in the direction of the hotel. He took it as a good sign. He fell into step beside her, but didn’t attempt to touch or talk to her. In their room, Allison sat on the couch. With her legs tucked underneath, she buried her face in the pillow. With her shoulders shaking, he

knew she cried. TJ poured two glasses of brandy, turned down the lamps, and joined her on the couch. After he set the drinks on the coffee table, he rested his hand on her leg. “I’m sorry, Allison. When I saw you sitting with him, I went crazy. I should have known something was wrong.” He let out the breath he was holding when she willingly went into his arms. He pulled

her close and stroked her head. “What happened between the two of you? There’s more to the story than a broken engagement.” TJ took the clip from her head and combed his fingers through her hair. “It isn’t what you’re thinking. However, you’re right, and I haven’t been completely honest with you about Henry. And I know you need to hear the whole of

what happened.” She snuggled deeper into his embrace. “I never loved him. I had no misconceptions of what our marriage would be. He never loved me, either. I planned to marry him to please my parents.” He kissed her temple. “Why didn’t you?” “Because he keeps secrets I can’t live with. Everyone knew of his reputation with women, even

his mother. He isn’t kind. As horrible as it would’ve been to be his wife, I would’ve tolerated his meanness. There was another side to Henry, a side he keeps in dark corners of dark rooms. He’d only marry me to fulfill his family obligation. Henry is a deviant.” TJ handed her the brandy. She took a large swallow, and then continued. “When I found him,” she

turned her head and glanced into TJ’s face. “He was enjoying oral ministrations.” She shook her head, trying to rid her mind of the image. TJ tried not to laugh, but couldn’t help the chuckle. “Most men enjoy oral pleasure.” “Not like this,” she said. “There were three in the room. Henry had his mouth on a woman…and a man at his back.”

TJ quit drawing imaginary circles on her back. He picked up his brandy and finished it. “When I refused his proposal, he planned to tell my parents I carried his child.” TJ stiffen beside her. “I have no doubt my mother would have believed him, and my father won’t challenge my mother. I had to leave.” “Son of a bitch.” Allison turned in his

arms. “Let it go, TJ. I don’t want any trouble for you. He comes from a powerful family.” “Maybe in Boston, but not here. Montana is a territory. And this part of the territory is mine.” “Money means power.” He pulled her close. “Sugar, he doesn’t have enough money to touch me. There’s nothing that pompous jackass can do to you now, I

promise.” She relaxed into his arms. “I’m sorry about earlier, in the bath,” he said, twirling a lock of her hair around his finger. “I do take you for granted. I know that, but I don’t mean to make you feel like an employee…or anything except the woman I want to share my life with.” Her swift departure scared him. He couldn’t lose her, not

now, not after taking her in the meadow. Damn it, she was his now. Maybe he was a possessive jackass, but he intended to be her possessive jackass. She could scold him for it for the rest of their lives. “Do you regret what happened on the trail?” “No,” she said tenderly. “I’ve learned that you take opportunities when they present themselves. When I first came to Copper City, I

was prepared to make any sacrifice not to submit myself to Henry Ash Oakdale.” She said his name with a sneer. “I almost followed through at the Dusty Rose. Marion told me to find some handsome cowboy to give myself to and then it would be my choice.” She fidgeted with the fabric of her dress. “Even then, I wished for you.” He twisted on the couch until they were lying face to

face. “On the night I saw you in the brothel, I wanted in your bed not Sandy’s.” He tucked a tendril of her hair behind her ear. “It didn’t take much persuading when Sandy asked me to bring you out to the ranch. You’re so pretty.” He touched the side of her face. “I knew I was in trouble.” “We both got what we wanted.” She pulled his mouth to hers.

“I want to take you to bed.” “Will that include making love to me?” Lifting her in his arms, TJ carried her into the bedroom. TJ opened his eyes, then quickly closed them. Morning light seeped into the bedroom from the crack in the heavy brocade curtains. TJ listened to Allison wake beside him,

the soft cadence of her breathing, the subtle shifts of her body. She signed and the bed dipped as she stretched, her leg brushing his. She stilled and the tempo of her breathing changed. With his eyes closed, TJ was tuned to every nuance. It had been a long time since he woke to a woman in his bed. A naked woman. He pretended to wake, stirring under the covers until more of his body

touched hers. “Morning,” he said, reaching over and drawing her to his side. “I must be dreaming.” “Me, too.” He ran his hand along her arm, over her breast, and drifted lower across the plane of her stomach until he cupped the heat of her sex. Lying face to face, he kissed her lips, along her jaw, and down her neck. She was

sleepy softness and feminine curves. He trailed kisses from her neck to the valley between her breasts. Grazing his tongue over her nipple, he then sucked it into his mouth. Allison put her hands on his head, arched her back, and kept his mouth over the hardened peak. He licked, sucked, gently nibbling her nipple, then he kissed his way to her other breast. Her rosescented skin was soft against

his tongue. Her hips swiveled into him and a low moan rolled from her chest. TJ slid down the bed, kicking the covers to the floor. He moved between her thighs and tasted the creamy smooth texture of her belly. “TJ,” she hissed, slamming her thighs together. He reached his hand between her legs. She sighed as his fingers parted the dewkissed lips of her sex.

“Let me in, Sugar, I want to taste how sweet you are.” He spread her thighs wide and lowered his head between them. Slicing the blade of his tongue through her folds, he lapped at the hot, musky essence of her arousal. With his thumbs, he spread her open and searched out her clitoris, pinching it between his lips. Allison knotted her fingers in his hair. She

thrashed on the bed as he stabbed his tongue into her heated folds. Kissing, sucking…devouring her hot flesh. Possessiveness welled within him. Seeing her with Henry, knowing he could have had this woman—his woman—sent fiery heat coursing through TJ. He’d give her all she ever needed, including his name. Rising up, he leveraged over her.

“Look at me,” he demanded, his voice thick and heavy with passion. When she opened her eyes, he speared into her, stretching her walls and claiming her body. Digging his knees into the bed, he took her hard, slamming deep and rearing back. Allison cried out, her nails clawing into TJ’s shoulders. “Yes, this is what I want.” She locked her legs

around his hips. “I don’t want soft. Harder.” He drilled in and out of her. “Tell me more. Tell me what you want.” “I want you,” she said breathlessly. “I want ravaged like the women at the Dusty Rose.” Her back bowed and her passage convulsed like a glove holding him tight. Pressure ripped from his balls and heat streaked through his shaft.

“Never like a whore.” TJ firmly gripped her hips and came. “This is making love to my wife.” * * * * * After breakfast, TJ and Allison went to the Dusty Rose. Entering the brothel was like hitting a wall of stale smoke and heavy perfume. Allison closed her eyes for a moment as a wave of nostalgia crashed over her. With most of the girls asleep,

the quiet parlor was empty of patrons. A few months ago, Allison would be making coffee, and running hot baths. “Are you going to find Sandy?” she asked, wincing at the thread of trepidation in her voice. “Yes, why don’t you go to Marion’s room and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.” “Maybe I should go with you.” He’d be alone with Sandy. Would he tell Sandy

what she’d done…what they’d done? TJ was Sandy’s lover. Allison didn’t want to be competition. She wanted TJ for herself. TJ smiled. “Are you worried?” “Of course not. I want to visit with Sandy, too. That’s all I meant.” TJ wrapped his hand around the back of her neck and pulled her into a deep kiss. She rose up on her

tiptoes to meet his tongue with her own. “You give me everything I need,” he said when they parted. “Go, before I have to take you back to the hotel room. You’re distracting enough with your clothes on. If I kiss you again, I’m going to need you naked.” Allison hurried up the stairs. She knocked once, paused, and knocked again twice. She heard Marion fall

out of bed. Allison laughed as Marion pulled open the door, hair in disarray and barely dressed. “Dear Lord, girl! I thought I was dreaming. No one has knocked on my door like that since you left.” She laughed, holding Allison tight. They rocked back and forth in the hallway. Cassie poked her head out of the door next to Marion’s rubbing her eyes.

“What’s going on?” “Alli’s back,” she hollered. “It might be eight o’clock in the morning, but I think it’s time for a party.” She squealed and wrapped Allison in a hug again. “Get in here.” Marion pulled Allison into her room and closed the door behind them. She dragged her onto the bed. “I got your letter. Tell me details. I want to know everything about life on the

ranch. Mr. Cowboy is the quiet type when he comes in. He’d never tell us anything about you. Just told Sandy you were fine.” Allison fell back against the pillows. “He might seem quiet to you, but with me, he yells a lot.” “Oh hell!” Marion covered her mouth. “Have you fallen for him?” Allison nodded. “I’ve done more than fall,” she said

ominously. Marion held her sides laughing. “I can’t believe she did it.” She reached out and took Allison’s hand in hers. “I won’t ask for the details because I know you won’t give them to me.” She sat up. “It does explain why Sandy’s been such a bitch the last couple of months.” TJ had told the truth. Maybe he wasn’t still seeing Sandy.

“Don’t say anything to anyone. I want to enjoy our visit and figure out the rest later.” “Our visit? Is he downstairs?” Allison nodded. “What are we doing up here? Come on.” They hurried downstairs to find TJ and Sandy sitting at the kitchen table. Marion stood behind Allison as they stopped in the doorway. TJ’s

eyes locked on Allison. “I don’t need to say anything,” Marion whispered in her ear. “He gives himself away.” Allison’s head snapped around. Marion raised her arched eyebrow, gave Allison an imperceptible nod, and then shoved her into the room. TJ stood and pulled out a chair. Allison sat and Marion stood next to Sandy. Allison

didn’t like the knowing glances passing between Marion and Sandy. Marion whispered something and Sandy nodded. “Do you want a cup of coffee?” TJ asked Allison. “Please.” He poured Allison a cup. Then he sat next to her. “We should tell them,” he whispered. “No.” She shook her head, and he nodded.

Marion giggled, and Sandy snorted. “We have a request.” “TJ, no.” She put her arm on his to stop him. “I have a request,” he corrected. “I have asked Allison to marry me. She said no.” “I say a lot of things, but you never listen.” “I do listen, but you’re being stubborn.” He turned to Sandy. “If I could convince

her to say yes, I’d like to get married today with the two of you as witnesses.” Marion whooped. “Love a take charge man.” Sandy laughed. “You two are perfect for each other,” Sandy said. “I knew that right away. After all, this is what I’d hoped for.” Allison snapped her gaze to Sandy. She’d wanted them to get married? Emotions tightened her throat and

squeezed her chest. But that didn’t change her relationship with TJ. When he said the words, he hadn’t meant them. Like usual, they were in an argument. TJ had made it clear, Janelle would remain in his heart. Allison understood and accepted that, but she wouldn’t marry a man who still loved another. “TJ.” Her chair grated against the floor when she stood. “You can’t bully me

into marring you. I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m not getting married.” She left the room. “I don’t get it,” TJ said, running his hands through his hair. “Doesn’t she know I can give her anything she wants?” Marion rolled her eyes and went to the cupboard for a cup. She poured herself coffee. “Tell me he’s not that stupid,” she said to Sandy.

TJ was confused. “If she gave a damn about money, do you think she would’ve left Boston? That girl wants a real man, not a jackass.” “She’s right,” Sandy said. “It was always about loyalty, commitment, and love with Allison. I know you, TJ. You wouldn’t have asked her to marry you if you didn’t love her. Have you told her?”

“She knows.” “That ain’t telling, TJ. That’s called showing.” Marion winked. TJ stepped away from the table and went after Allison. He found her sitting in the empty parlor. Curled up in the velvet loveseat in the back of the room, she stared out the narrow window. “We need to talk.” He slid his hands into the front

pockets of his trousers. “I know.” “No, you don’t.” He crossed the room and stood beside her. “I just got a lecture from mother hen and big sister,” he said, smiling. “I’ve been a fool, Allison. It isn’t easy for me to let down my guard. I know I can force a man’s hand because I’m TJ Bester and not many people would dare cross me. Those who try, regret it.” His jaw

clenched and looked up at the ceiling. “I have my reasons for wanting to marry you.” “What are those reasons, TJ?” Muscles in his arms tensed and he curled his fingers in a tight fist. Admitting weakness, even for a woman wasn’t easy for him. But weakness for Allison made him strong. He sat next to her. “I don’t want you to stay at the house because

you’re working for me. I want you there because you love me.” “My loving you doesn’t automatically make a good marriage. It has to be more. I’m not going to be yours or anyone else’s wife unless that man swears to be my husband. I don’t think you can. I wasn’t the one who said they would never love another. I’m not angry. I know Janelle will always be

your wife.” “I can never completely say goodbye. Sissy and Michael deserve her memory.” “Maybe you still need her memory, too.” She placed her hand on his thigh. “I’m sorry TJ, but I can’t marry you.” Tears filled her eyes. TJ sat rigid, letting her words sink in. As a man, Allison suited him. He had let go of Janelle. Allison was all

he needed. He only had to convince her. “You are the one in my heart, in my head. I do love you.” Allison signed. “The words don’t come from the heart when they have to be pried from your lips.” “You are stubborn.” TJ wanted to punch the nearest wall and drag her by the hair to the justice of the peace. No. He shook his head. He’d try to be patient. Eventually

she would believe him. “TJ,” she said softly. “You decided you wanted me and thought no farther. In my heart, I know I love you and I believe you care for me. What we have is not enough for marriage, but it’s enough for me.” “You just want me to bed you. You want to be my whore?” For as much as she claimed not to be one, she seemed to be determined to

take that role. She smiled. “Just yours.” TJ growled and put his hand over hers. “No. I want you…as my wife. You think I need more time; I can accept that even though you’re wrong.” He leaned in to kiss her lips. She returned the kiss then broke apart. “You’re the one who is stubborn. I don’t want you to say anything you don’t mean. I don’t want to

live as my parents did. My father loved my mother. I think she loved him. They were miserable most of the time because she didn’t know how to show it. Words aren’t enough, but neither is action. A marriage needs both.” “We have both.” “No, we don’t. We fight and we…” She’d almost said the word. TJ laughed. “You don’t like losing an

argument.” She folded her arms across her chest. “What kind of marriage would that be for me? The more I consider your offer, the more reservations I have.” “Then, for now, stop considering. Visit with your friends. We’ll leave for the ranch in a couple hours.” He stood. “Check with the hotel if you need to find me.” “I can take care of myself. And I’m sure the

employees of the hotel have better things to do than keep track of you.” “They’ll do what I say if they want to keep their jobs.” “Oh, I see.” She smirked. “Once again the reputation of TJ Bester precedes you.” “My reputation is well deserved.” He put his hat on. “But that isn’t why they’ll do what I say. I guess I neglected to tell you, I own the hotel.” He kissed her pursed lips and

left the room. The parlor door closed as she assimilated the information. Sandy had to have known. Of all the sneaky…she deserved the truth. Her skirts billowed around her legs as she marched back into the kitchen. “You look flushed,” Sandy said. “He didn’t try to seduce you in my parlor, did

he?” “Isn’t that why you asked him to take me to the ranch?” Marion giggled and leaned into Sandy. “If you did, it worked. He’s already sampled our little Allison.” “Marion! You were supposed to keep it a secret.” “Hmmph. You girls never cease to amaze me. Allison, when a man wants to marry, you are to exchange vows before you share your

bed. Not that I have any experience with marriage.” She clapped her hands together. “Now that I have your full admission, I expect you to do the right thing. I didn’t send you to the ranch to become his whore. You could have done that right here.” Allison braced her fists against her hips. “I’ll do exactly what I want. And for the record, I am going to

marry him.” She yanked out a chair and sat at the table with a smile across her face. “Until he walked out the door just now, I didn’t think I would.” “Did he tell you he loves you?” Marion asked, her eyes as wide as the saucers holding their coffee cups. “Yes and no.” She looked at Sandy. “You understand, don’t you?” Sandy nodded. “I knew the butterflies I

felt the first time I met TJ were special. No matter how hard I tried not to think about him, he found a way into my heart. He knew it, too.” She took a deep breath. When she exhaled, she let go of her reservations. “He could have gotten me out of the brothel by putting me to work at the hotel where we’re staying. He let me believe I was a burden. Evidently, I’m a burden he wants. He just wouldn’t admit

to it.” “Fate.” Marion rested her chin in her palm. A dreamy look clouded her eyes. Sandy snorted. “I all but orchestrated it.” Sandy refilled her coffee cup. “I’d be dead before the two of you figured out you’d be perfect together on your own.” “I know I’m asking a lot, but will you please attend my wedding next weekend at the ranch?”

Both Sandy and Marion rolled their eyes. “Of course.” Allison left the brothel with a promise from Marion and Sandy. They would be at the ranch in a week’s time.

Chapter Twelve Allison remained strangely quiet on the way back to the ranch. TJ wondered where her thoughts drifted. He had pushed hard. A woman like Allison would rather deny herself what she truly wanted than give someone the satisfaction of being right. The last time she

had been backed into a corner, she’d run. He vowed this time would be different. She’d left Boston. He wouldn’t let her leave the Montana Territory. Crickets welcomed them home. The ranch wouldn’t be awake for a few hours. They climbed the porch steps and entered the deserted house. At the top of the stairs, Allison turned toward her room. “Where are you

going?” TJ asked, slipping his hand into hers. “To my room.” Her voice echoed in the empty hall. “Not tonight.” TJ lead her into his room. Allison stepped near the window as TJ pulled the door closed. He turned down the lantern and watched Allison from across the room. Silky hair draped down her back. Thinking about how it fanned across his chest

while they were naked in the canyon, caused a stirring in his heart. Married or not, he intended to have her in his bed. Forever. “The night of the fire,” he said, pulling his shirttails from the waistband of his trousers and then stripping out of his shirt. “I thought we’d lose the house. I imagined it burning to the ground. I came up here to grab papers from the safe.”

He came up behind her. Outside, the blackness of the night obscured the barn. Not a star twinkled in the sky and the moon vanished. He bent his head and kissed the soft skin of her neck. “I could smell you on the bed. Since then, not a night has gone by that I haven’t dreamed about you.” “I have a confession.” Turning around, she sat on the edge of the open window.

“I slept in your bed while you were gone.” She hesitantly touched his abdominals, her fingertips tracing the grooves made from hard ranch work. He sucked in a breath and his muscles tensed. “Everything I know, I learned in the whore house.” She slipped the button of his trousers open. The fabric gaped and his cock unfurled, stretching toward his navel. She closed her hand around the shaft.

TJ moaned and threaded his fingers through her hair. He tipped her face to his, bent down and kissed her lips. “My virgin whore.” He straightened. Allison smiled, opened her mouth and touched her tongue to the sensitive flesh. TJ said her name as if it were profane. He braced his hands against the wall on either side of her. Without offering any instruction or criticism, he let

her explore every detail of his cock. She licked the tip, curled her tongue around the head and, taking as much of the stalk as she could, she rolled her lips down the length. Allison’s mouth was a warm wet cave. As she tasted, lashing her tongue over the taut flesh, she mewled her pleasure. TJ’s balls tingled and tightened, but he didn’t want to come like this. He

wanted buried in her sweet heat. “Sugar, not like this.” He slipped from her mouth. Taking her hands, he pulled her to her feet and backed her toward the bed. “I need to be inside you.” More than he needed air, he burned to drive deep into her silken core. TJ lifted her hair and traced the curve of her neck with his lips. “Take off your skirt.”

She unhooked the side clasp and it fell to the floor. “Take off everything.” He tasted the shell of her ear as she worked her underclothes down her legs. Slipping the buttons free, she opened her blouse. Her fingers trembled. The blouse dropped from her shoulder, slipped down her arms, and fluttered to the floor. TJ turned her, his chest to her back, and trailed his fingers

along her skin until he held the heavy weight of her breasts in his hands, stroking the hard, cherry peaks with his thumbs. Aligning his hips to hers, he cradled his erection in the cleft of her ass. Allison angled her head, looking over her shoulder. TJ captured her lips, thrusting his tongue into her mouth, desperate to do the same to her body. He eased her onto the bed until she lay on her

back. “Spread your legs.” She hesitantly widened her thighs. Moisture glistened on her nether lips. TJ groaned as he shucked his pants, climbed onto the bed with her, and positioned between her thighs. He had to be inside her, now. Fiery heat licked his loins. He plunged hard and fast, filling her completely, savoring the sweet tightness.

“Tell me how you feel,” he whispered, pulling out and filling her again. Allison’s chest rose and fell with each word she spoke. “I see stars when I close my eyes.” She moaned and arched off the bed. “I’m coming apart.” Her body sought TJ’s heat. The intensity built inside of her. “I can’t get close enough.” She held him tight, digging her

fingernails into the hard, muscle of his shoulders. She wrapped her legs around his hips. Her body bucked. Bright light blinded behind closed eyelids. She cried out her pleasure, breaking into a million little pieces. TJ growled, tensed, and followed her orgasm with his own. His cock pulsed deep inside her. He continued to thrust, penetrating deep. Her womb contracted. She

shivered and melted, dissolving into a quivering release. She held to the pleasure until the final spasms ebbed. TJ collapsed beside her. Allison curled into his contours, a contented sigh slipping from her lips. * * * * * Rain pelted the window when Allison woke a few hours later. TJ wrapped an arm possessively around her

waist. They touched from shoulder to toes. When she tried to move away from him, he tightened his hold. “Where do you think you’re going?” “Coffee, breakfast, get ready for the children to return.” “No one knows were back. I think we should stay in bed all day and listen to the rain.” He kissed her neck. “No one knows we’re

home, yet. As soon as someone checks the horses they will.” “Who cares?” He sounded like a petulant child. “They’ll assume we arrived late, and we’re still asleep.” “There’s too much work to be done and not much time.” She slid out of his arms, pulling the covers with her. She clutched the blanket to her breasts as she looked for her clothes.

TJ propped up on an elbow. “There’s always time.” He patted the bed. “You have work to do as well. I could use some help cleaning the chandeliers.” She bent over to pick up her skirt. “I like this angle.” Still bent, she narrowed her eyes, glancing at him lounging on the bed. When she stood, she flipped her hair out of her face. “We have a

week to get this house in perfect condition. You still have some cleanup left over from the fire.” “What happens in a week?” he asked, sitting up. “Oh, I guess I forgot to mention.” A smile spread across her lips. “I invited Marion and Sandy to the house. They promised to come.” She found her blouse and put it on. She tossed him his trousers, but he set them

aside. “If you don’t get dressed, we won’t get anything done. And if I’m to have the perfect wedding, I’m going to need your help.” TJ leapt off the bed in a flash. He picked her up in his arms. “When did you change your mind? Never mind, I don’t care.” He kissed her mouth and hauled her onto the bed. “No.” She laughed. TJ tore her clothing in his

haste to get her undressed again. She pushed his hands away, squirmed out from underneath him and scrambled off the bed. “No more farming or fertilizing.” She waved her hand. “Or whatever it is you call it when you ravish a woman.” Her Bostonian accent grew thicker with her nervousness. “I believe the word you’re looking for is plowing, and as my future wife—”

“Your future wife worked in a brothel. I know a good deal about plowing.” She held out her hand to stop his approach. “But we can’t. I promised Sandy. TJ, don’t.” He continued to stalk closer to her. She squealed, and then sprinted for the door. TJ blocked her exit with his arm. “You know what I’m waiting for.” Allison slipped her arms around his neck and stood on

her tiptoes. After kissing his lips she whispered, “Yes, but you’re not going to get it.” “I’ll change your mind.” He feverishly explored her mouth, kissing, tongues tangling. He grasped a handful of her hair, gently pulled her head back, and gazed into her eyes. “I swear, I’m going to make you a good husband.” “But you can’t say anything to anyone. Not yet.

Not until I talk to Joseph.” TJ sighed and loosened his hold on her. “Ah, hell.” “You were right. I haven’t been fair to him, but I was honest. I know I’m still going to hurt him.” TJ groaned. “He’ll hurt, but he’ll understand.” “I hope you’re right.” A few minutes later, she went to find Joseph and TJ went for the children. She found him in the stables,

cleaning out stalls. “I see you made it back,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d be back this soon. How’d it go with TJ?” He stopped working and leaned against the handle of the pitchfork. She didn’t answer right away. Her stomach knotted and her nerves tingled with anxiety. She sat on a bale of hay, and folded her hands in her lap. “I think we should talk.”

His lips pursed. “You made a decision, I take it?” He inhaled through his nose. Breaking TJ’s rule of no smoking in the stables, he pulled his pouch of tobacco from his pocket. “What happened?” “Enough. We’re going to be married on Saturday. I’m sorry, Joseph. I thought if I put him in the back of my mind, he’d stay there.” He rolled his shoulders,

took a long drag off his smoke, and ran his hands through his hair. The knot in her stomach coiled tighter. Pain played across his face. His jaw ticked and his nostrils flared as he took another deep breath. Seeing Joseph work through his emotions, Allison understood TJ’s concern. Because she couldn’t have TJ, didn’t mean she had a right to give Joseph false

hope. Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “TJ’s my best friend. I’m not mad at you or at him. Hell, TJ always gets the girl.” Allison stood in front of him and made him look at her. “At least now he’s off the market. The next girl’s for you.” He smiled. “I don’t expect another woman like you to hitch a ride out here to

become a ranch hand. You’re special. Don’t let TJ change you.” Joseph deserved better than she gave him. Moreover, his understanding didn’t lessen her guilt. “Believe me when I tell you his heart is in this marriage. Nothing you or I do can change him. I accept that. I don’t want to change him. I’m doing this— marrying TJ—for me. He won’t change me. He claims

he doesn’t want to. I believe him. He says he needs me and I know the children need me.” She spoke softly. “And I need him.” To say anything more to Joseph was inappropriate now. Like her soon to be husband, she wanted her marriage and the secrets therein to remain private. A special connection only she and TJ would ever share. But she needed one more thing

from Joseph. “I have no right, but I want to ask a favor of you.” She took a steadying breath. “Will you stand with TJ? I know he won’t ask because he’s afraid there’s going to be bad blood between the two of you. I know I’m asking for more than I deserve. I never meant to come between the two of you.” “There’s no problem.” He snuffed out his cigarette

against a wood post. “Don’t tell on me for smoking in the barn.” She threw her arms around his neck, but Joseph kept distance in the embrace. “Where is he? Probably best if I see him right away. I want to be the first to say congratulations.” “He went to get Sis and Michael. Come up to the house for coffee and we’ll wait for him.” “I think I’m going to

need something a little stronger.” She linked her arm with his. Then they made their way up the hill to the house. “I think somewhere there is a very, lucky girl waiting to be swept off her feet by you.” “If you see her, could you bring her home?”

Chapter Thirteen Sitting on opposite ends of the couch, Allison rubbed TJ’s feet as they rested in her lap. She pressed her thumb into the instep. “You’ve been quiet tonight.” TJ said. The children were in bed adding to the solitude. “Not having doubts, are you?” He pulled

his feet from her lap and scooted closer. “Sentimental thoughts I guess. Every little girl dreams about her wedding.” She shifted her position and leaned against him. “Cake has made the most incredible looking food for tomorrow. He could have been a chef in Boston or Philadelphia if he’d had the mind to. As for Betty, she has the wedding cake all but finished. If my mother

were here, even she’d be impressed. “Everyone has been helpful and excited,” she continued. “It almost seems too magical to be real.” “Then why do you look miserable? You’re marrying the man of your dreams,” he said and winked. “You have all the makings of a perfect wedding.” “Except a white dress, parents to give me away, a

father to walk me down the aisle, family, my brothers, life-long friends, and if I go on I’ll sound like the spoiled brat I was raised to be. I’m not ungrateful for the gifts you’ve given me, the house, children…you. It’s hard to remember all I’ve given up even when looking forward to the better things to come. Tell me you understand.” TJ ran his hand along the back of the couch. “Actually,

I’m experiencing a fair amount of guilt. I’ve been thinking about Janelle. And the memories don’t seem as important. How can I remember…when I only want to think about the future?” Allison turned in his arms. “We both have to let go of the past.” She brushed her lips against his. His tongue tasted cool. Then his mouth slanted, her head tilted, and heat fused them together.

Passion ignited. His fists tangled in her hair. He pulled her onto his lap. His cock pressed against her bottom. She wiggled trying to align her sex with the solid length of his erection. “What about your rule? You said I can’t plow into you until after the wedding.” “I didn’t realize what would happen if the fields were neglected. I’m not the farmer.” Her hands quickly

worked the buttons of his shirt. “Besides, I decided I like your rules.” Finally, she had his shirt open. Her hands ran along the contours of his chest. She tried to lie down, but instead TJ lifted her up until she straddled him. He moved the folds of her skirt until she felt his heat slide against her, parting the moist lips of her sex. “You’ve spent enough time on Sugar to know how

to ride.” TJ put his hands behind his head. Allison reached between her legs, gripped TJ’s shaft with her hand, and positioned him at the entrance of her body. Slowly, letting him fill her, she lowered onto his cock. “Ahh.” Impaled completely, she put her hands on his torso and rocked her hips. TJ closed his eyes, and clamped his teeth together.

He growled, clutched her hips, and surged into her body. Her breathy gasps gusted past her lips. “Will it always be like this?” Her body pulsed around his. “It gets better.” “I guess I know why Marion enjoys her job.” TJ chuckled. Her fingers dug into his flesh. Her body raced toward release. “It’s coming,” she hissed.

“No sweetheart, you are.” He groaned, squeezing her hips. Back arched, jaw clenched, every muscles in his body visibly tensed. Hot fluids bathed her clenching womb. Each rhythmic pulse sent frissons of fire scorching through her body. “I love you,” he whispered. “I love you, too,” she said, collapsing onto his chest.

The End Dear Reader, I took liberties with history in writing To Bed a Montana Man. Allison would have had to take the stage into Butte from Salt Lake City. The draw of a bustling copper boom motivated my decision to create Copper City, a fictional town. The Dumas brothel closed in 1982 in Butte, Montana. It

was the longest operating brothel before closing its doors having served over one million satisfied customers. It served as my inspiration for the Dusty Rose. Come back to Copper City in To Wed a Wanton Woman. Marion has always wanted to ride a Train. Maybe she’ll finally get her chance. For other titles visit

www.KyAnnWaters.com

MY HIGHLAND LORD Highland Lords Series Boook Two Tarah Scott

Broken Arm Publishing Copyright © 2013 by Tarah Scott All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the

author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any

resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS My deepest thanks to Nikki at Close Encounters with the Night Kind for being my first official beta reader. You rock, girl! My undying gratitude goes to Evan Trevane, my good friend and critique partner, who read this book with an eagle eye. My hero wears a kilt, and you made sure no one mistook it for a skirt.

Thank you to Kimberly Comeau, who brainstormed with me and read the tough sections—many times over! No book is complete without a spectacular cover. Thanks to Melissa Alvarez at Book Covers Galore for another beautiful cover.

REVIEWS Welcome to the Majesty that can only be Tarah Scott. Be prepared to be swept up in the intrigue and wonder of her newest addition to the Highland Lords Series. This books was completely engrossing and enraptured you from start to finish, and what an ending indeed!! A must read for all Historical Romance lovers. This book is sure to capture your heart and

leave you in breathless anticipation for the next edition!! Close Encounters with the Night Kind My Highland Lord is a hilarious and intriguing adventure in which all kinds of mysteries and romance surround our heroine. I give My Highland Lord five Stars out of five because it was supremely interesting and captivating. The Romance

Reviews Top Pick

Chapter One

London, September 1837 “Please, Frederick,” John Stafford rasped. He lifted his trembling hand from the bed’s coverlet. Light from the candle on the nightstand flickered with the small disturbance. “Bring me that chest.” John pointed at the

desk in the corner of the bedchamber before his hand dropped back down beside him. He dragged in a heavy breath. Frederick's mouth thinned in concern. “John, you must—” “The chest,” John cut in with a small measure of his old vigor. His friend sighed, turned, and crossed the room. He lifted the small chest from its

two-decade-long resting place. When last the chest had been moved, John was Sheriff of Bow Street and supervisor of the Home Office spies. The chest's contents proved the innocence of one of the conspirators in the most daring assassination attempts of their time. Frederick returned to the bed, set the chest on the nightstand, and gave John a

questioning look. “Remove the documents,” John said. John closed his eyes in anticipation of the familiar creak of hinges as Frederick opened the chest. How many times had he raised that lid only to slam it shut again without touching the contents? The rustling of papers ceased and Frederick gave a low cry of surprise. John opened his eyes.

“Yes,” he said as Frederick laid the stack of envelopes on the bed. “That is, indeed, Lord Mallory of the House of Lords.” John pushed aside envelopes until he uncovered the one he wanted. He tapped it and whispered, “Read this aloud.” Frederick removed the sheets of paper from their envelope, sat beside John on the edge of the mattress, and began.

April 26, 1820 In early February of this year word reached me, John Stafford, chief clerk at Bow Street, and head of the Bow Street officers, that Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the radical Spencean Philanthropists Society, planned on February 15 to assassinate the king's ministers. Thistlewood had been reported as saying he

could raise fifteen thousand armed men in half an hour, so we feared riots would break out, which might allow him to carry out his assassinations. I sent one of my officers George Ruthven to infiltrate the Spenceans, and then recruited from within their ranks, John Williamson, John Shegoe, James Hanley, Thomas Dywer, and George

Edwards. Edwards was such an adept spy that he became Thistlewood's aidede-camp. Little did I know the terrible part Edwards would play in this operation. When I had investigated Arthur Thistlewood and the Spenceans in 1816 at Spa Fields, Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth sent me spies, and he was apprised

of the men I now used—in fact, George Edwards reported not only to me, but to Lord Sidmouth. So I was surprised when Lord Mallory dispatched another spy from the Solicitor General's office, Mason Wallington, Viscount Albery. Oddly, Thistlewood unexpectedly abandoned the idea of the assassinations planned for

February 15. We feared he would make an unexpected move to murder the Privy Council, so we quickly set a trap. Thistlewood snapped up the bait like a starving lion. He believed that Lord Harrowby was to entertain the Cabinet in his home at Grosvenor Square Wednesday, February 23, 1820, and, as we anticipated, decided to assassinate the entire

Cabinet while they dined. The Spenceans chose the Horse and Groom, a public house on Cato Street that overlooks the stable, as their meeting place, so we dubbed the operation 'The Cato Street Conspiracy.' God help me, at the time, I felt no compunctions about entrapping Thistlewood and his men. Thistlewood was mad—he believed God had answered

his prayers in finding a way to destroy the Cabinet —and his followers were, at best, murderers. The reform they claimed to be fighting for was nothing more than an excuse to seize power. However, given what I learned in the years since The Cato Street Conspiracy, I have questioned a thousand times our methods in bringing these men to

justice. On the day of the intended assassinations, I positioned Bow Street officers near the Horse and Groom. I had readied my own pistol when, at the last moment, a message from the Home Office deterred my participation in the arrests. How many times I have wondered at this bit of 'providence.' It was all too convenient that I was

absent during the arrests that day. I directed Richard Birnie, a Bow Street magistrate, to take charge, and left him with my officers to watch for the conspirators. Thistlewood’s men soon arrived and, at seven-thirty that night, Birnie ordered the arrests. A fight ensued and Thistlewood escaped.

Several of the top conspirators were apprehended, but our spy Mason Wallington mysteriously disappeared. While making the arrests, Richard Smithers was run through by Thistlewood, and I was frantic at the possibility we had lost another good man. We arrested Thistlewood the next day, and eleven other conspirators were

apprehended within days. Then, to my shock, Barry Doddard, a young officer from a neighboring magistrate, named Mason Wallington as the twelfth and only major conspirator to elude capture. Upon hearing Doddard’s accusations, I immediately wrote Lord Mallory informing him of the mistake. Mallory replied that Wallington had

long been suspected of dissident actions and was believed to be in league with Thistlewood. I simply couldn't believe this. Wallington had a reputation as a devoted Englishman and spurned the tactics employed by the Spenceans. I informed Mallory of this, but he countered that Wallington had openly criticized the government

and had even quoted Thistlewood’s philosophies concerning the lower classes and the rights of women. I couldn’t accept this, but Lord Sidmouth intervened, ordering me to desist. Wallington was a wanted criminal and if he was found, Sidmouth ordered me to turn Wallington over to him. I considered paying a visit to Thistlewood in

Coldbath Fields Prison, but realized my visit would be reported to Sidmouth. Besides, Thistlewood was reported to have said that he had hoped it was me he killed instead of Smithers. I had no recourse but to obey Lord Sidmouth's orders. At the age of thirtysix, Mason Wallington became a fugitive. Frederick lowered the

document and John pointed to the envelope farthest from him. “Now that one.” Frederick picked up the second envelope and removed the letter. He cleared his throat and began again. July, 1824 Four years have passed since Mason Wallington was branded a traitor. Despite Sidmouth's orders that I forget the

matter, my conscience demands I act. Whether guilt or innocence is the result of my findings, I shall, as always, record all matters true and faithfully. I begin with Wallington’s superior, Lord Niles Mallory. Frederick looked at John, the short letter finished. "Wallington has a daughter," John said. “She

has been a victim of the lie too—" A heavy cough cut him off. “John!” Frederick leapt to his feet and filled the glass on the nightstand with water from the pitcher. Frederick slipped an arm beneath his back and lifted him forward until his mouth met the lip of the glass. John took several small sips. He breathed deeply, nodded he was finished, and Frederick

settled him back onto the pillow. Frederick set the glass on the nightstand. “Rest. We will finish later.” John grasped his friend’s hand. “The girl has a right to the truth. I cannot go to my peace knowing I leave her in turmoil.” John closed his eyes, remembering the day she had come to him. He couldn’t escape her questions or the pain in her eyes when

he turned her away without answers. He looked at Frederick. “See that she gets the letters.” His voice weakened. “Swear.” He tightened his grip on Frederick’s hand in one final squeeze. “Swear.” “I swear,” Frederick promised, and John lay back on his pillow and slept.

Chapter Two

Edinburgh, Scotland The criminal was alive and well. Yet, the one man who could have exposed him was dead. Phoebe stared at the clipping of the obituary notice printed in the Times five days ago. The knowledge

of his death settled around her as black as the darkness surrounding her carriage. The lantern flickered with the sway of the carriage as she slid her gaze over the paragraph that extolled Bow Street Sheriff John Stafford’s criminal expertise, and past the mention of his involvement in The Cato Street Conspiracy. A man’s life reduced to two paragraphs. For the hundredth

time since she'd first read the obituary, she settled her gaze on the final line. September 1837, John Stafford died in his London home. Phoebe refolded the clipping, set it on her lap, and pulled another document from her reticule. She ran her fingers along the ageyellowed edges of the only letter her father had written to her mother, the letter she had

shown John Stafford when she'd visited him in his home five years ago. She unfolded the foolscap and, with a deep breath, began reading. Her lips moved in tandem with the words she'd long ago memorized. May 20, 1820 My Dearest Amelia, Please forgive this letter so long overdue. I am well and I have found safe

haven—at least for the moment. You have, no doubt, heard the news that I am wanted for high treason, and now you know that my suspicions were correct. Amelia, you cannot know how my accusers make even the most abhorrent criminal look like one of God’s angels. I sorely underestimated the depth of their deceit. Fool that I am, I did not

anticipate being branded a traitor in their stead. I know your heart is heavy, my love, but no more so than mine. It is shocking to learn that one’s leaders are willing to sacrifice their countrymen for money and power. Ironically, had I known then what I now know, I would be guilty of their accusations. Do not shudder. I know I speak

treason, but you cannot comprehend the fine line between reason and desperation when all choices have been eliminated. Would it shock you to hear that I relish the day I shall destroy my accusers? They have taken all I hold dear: you, our darling Phoebe and, lastly, my freedom. While I cannot like Arthur Thistlewood—

his motives are not pure as he would have us believe— in one thing he was right: those few rich and powerful men who rule supreme in our society have stolen our rights. I have a plan, which, of course, I cannot elaborate upon here, but I must uncover the truth. Otherwise…well, otherwise, I am no better than Thistlewood—or those

men who brought him to justice. I do not know when I will have another opportunity to write. Give Phoebe my love, and do not despair. I have not. Your loving husband, Mason It wasn't until her mother's death ten years ago that Phoebe learned her father sent this letter. The letter,

hidden amongst her mother's personal correspondence, had been folded with a newspaper clipping dated February 24, 1820, the day after the Spencean Society's planned assassination of the Cabinet. The newspaper clipping, a statement made by Lord Sidmouth to the London Gazette concerning the charge of high treason against Thistlewood and his murder of Bow Street runner Richard

Smithers, also mentioned the bounty on Thistlewood's head. The paragraphs were framed by a note written in her father's hand on the sides. Sidmouth could not have yet known that Thistlewood killed Smithers. Here is proof positive the noose had been put around Thistlewood's neck before he even planned the assassinations. "Why?" Phoebe whispered. Why had her

father been falsely accused and why had he cared that the government ensured Thistlewood's capture? Thistlewood was a known murderer, a man—A sharp sideways jostle yanked Phoebe back to the present. “What in—” Another jolt cut short the exclamation. She yanked back the curtain and peered into the darkness. No lights dotted the countryside as they should

have, and moonlight revealed open fields beyond the road. She quickly refolded the letter and clipping, stuffed them into her reticule, then opened the door an inch and called, “Where are we, Calders? I don’t recognize this road.” “Taking a shortcut, Miss,” came the muffled reply. “Wha—" The coach listed, and she slammed the

door with the force of the movement, tumbling back against the cushion. "By heavens." Phoebe seized the handle again. The door was yanked from her grasp and flung open. A man filled the doorway. She jerked back as a rush of air guttered the lantern flame. Her heart jumped when she lost sight of the intruder for an instant, then the light flared to life

again. The man gripped the side of the open doorway of the slowing carriage, one leg braced on the floor. She took in eyes bluer than any she'd ever seen, an angled face, and a fit body leaning forward on one powerful leg—a leg clad in finely cut trousers. Thievery paid well these days! She cut her gaze to his and he grinned. Phoebe pooled her strength.

Understanding flickered in his eyes the instant before she kicked his shoulder with a slippered foot. With a loud grunt, he toppled from the coach. She lunged forward, caught hold of the flapping door, and hung her head out the doorway, scanning the road behind for the brigand. The coach was slowing even more, and her heart leapt higher in her throat when he jumped to his feet and

starting toward them. “Calders,” she yelled, “lay whip to the horses. Quickly!” The coach halted so suddenly, she tumbled through the door, and landed on her side. A dull pain throbbed deep in her shoulder. She pushed onto an elbow and fingered the tender place on her arm. No blood. Thank God she'd worn a cloak.

The carriage creaked and Phoebe looked up to see the murky form of her coachman as he dropped to the ground. She scrambled to her feet and turned in the direction of the highwayman. He wasn’t hastening to them as expected, but strolled forward while dusting off his trousers. She turned on unsteady feet to face Calders and her eyes came into sharp focus upon the face of a stranger.

She recoiled, then narrowed her eyes on him. “Where's Calders. What have you done with him? If you harmed him—” "Never fear, madam, he is unharmed." Phoebe whirled at the sound of the velvet, deep voice belonging to the highwayman. "I promise," he said, "Calders was simply delayed.”

A sudden pounding of hooves riveted her attention onto the distant shadowy forms of four approaching horsemen. “There!” one of the newcomers shouted. “There she is.” She looked back at the highwayman in time to see him step toward her. He seized her arm. She tried to yank free, but he dragged her toward the carriage.

“Mather,” he said in a low voice, “get this coach underway. Now." Phoebe dug her heels into the ground and was abruptly hauled over his shoulder. She cried out, but he didn't slow his pace. “Release me, you fool!" she shouted. His shoulder dug into her stomach with each long, hurried stride he took. Phoebe kicked, despite the pain.

"Be still" he ordered, and clamped his arm down on her legs. She thrashed harder. A shot rang out. She jerked her head up, but found herself tossed onto the cushions of the carriage. The highwayman jumped into the carriage after her. “Damnation.” He slammed the door shut. “They mean to put a ball through me.” He pounded on the coach

roof and they lurched into motion. Phoebe clutched at the door handle, but pitched forward despite the effort. Her captor shoved her back against the cushions, holding her firm as he pulled back the curtain and peered out the window. “Bloody hell.” He looked at her. “Fine time for shenanigans.” She frowned. “Perhaps you should keep a tighter

hand on your band.” “They are not my band, madam.” His gaze was still fixed out the window. “They are, however, a persistent band and will reach us momentarily.” He twisted to look in the direction they were headed, then pounded on the carriage roof and shouted, “Mather, make for that abandoned farm up ahead.” The carriage veered and

Phoebe bounced left and right despite his hold on her. Stories of runaway carriages conjured pictures of broken necks and twisted bodies, and she envisioned herself pitching forward head first into the opposite seat. The arm pinning her to the cushions suddenly encircled her waist. Another jolt of the carriage, and her unwanted companion yanked her tight against his chest.

Her senses flooded with the aroma of wool and musky sandalwood. They listed when the carriage swayed perilously to one side. Phoebe seized his lapel and buried her face deeper in his chest. If there was a God in heaven, she would land on the brigand when the carriage rolled and he would break his neck while saving hers. The carriage halted. He threw back the door and

jumped to the ground, dragging her with him. The farmhouse stood a few feet away. Phoebe scanned the distance. The riders approached at a gallop and would soon reach the barn that sat sixty feet from the house. The highwayman grabbed her hand and started around the side of the ramshackle farmhouse. She started to yank free, but hesitated. Two bands of

extortionists? Why—and which was the more dangerous? They rounded the building, then he pushed her against the wall, and demanded, “Which of your other admirers am I dealing with?” Other admirers? Phoebe flushed. Adam. She had refused Adam's offer of marriage three times this year alone, but hadn't

considered that her childhood friend would kidnap her in an effort to coerce her into accepting his proposal. But if this man was Adam's friend, where was he—and who were the other thugs? God only knew, but at least Adam's friends didn't pose any real danger—other than the possibility of her ending up in Gretna Green. Her kidnapper drew a pistol from the back of his

waistband. Phoebe pressed closer to the rough stone of the farmhouse. He stepped forward two paces past her, extended a steady hand, and leveled the weapon on the oncoming riders. A shot rang out and shouts damned him to the darker parts of hell. He ducked back behind the farmhouse. “Never thought I’d need more than one shot.” He stuffed the pistol back into his

waistband. “How many did you count, Mather?” “Three, sir.” “Only three? Not terrible odds.” “If you say so, sir.” “Do you hear that?” the highwayman whispered. Before Phoebe could reply, he hurried along the building to the rear. She took two quick steps to the corner at the front of the house and peered around the edge

toward the road. The brigands were nowhere in sight. “Bloody hell,” her captor cursed, and Phoebe turned. “They left their mounts on the other side of the barn.” He hurried back to her. “Mather, your second pistol, if you please.” The older man handed over the Murdock Scottish flintlock pistol he gripped. "You haven't got a spare pistol you can give me?" she

asked. The highwayman's head snapped in her direction. "I need protection," she said. "I am your protection." He grasped her arm and hurried her along the farmhouse. "Who will protect me against you?" she demanded. Phoebe was sure she heard a chuckle as he continued around the back of the building. He halted and pointed at Mather, then jerked

his head toward the far end of the building. Mather hurried to the edge and, a moment later, held up one finger, clearly indicating another of their attackers was closing in on the side he surveyed. The highwayman motioned Mather toward the trees, then leaned toward her, his breath startling her as his mouth touched her ear. He whispered, “We'll make a dash for those trees. Hold

tight to my hand.” He grasped her hand and sprinted forward. Phoebe yanked up her skirts as they raced across the short expanse. He glanced back in the instant before they entered the cover of trees, then muttered something and dragged her to the ground. His body rolled onto hers like the weight of a fallen carriage, and she gasped for air. A shot rang out and she

flinched. Mather shouted, then her companion sprang to his feet, pulling her up beside him. Phoebe dragged in a heavy breath, barely managing to keep pace as he hurried deeper into the trees. A man appeared up ahead. Relief eased the knot in her stomach upon recognizing Mather. The highwayman stopped once they reached his side. A long moment of

silence passed before her captor said, “I want to see if they've given up. Double back around to the north, Mather. You know where to meet should we become separated.” “Perhaps, sir, I should deal with the men?” “I will be quicker in dispatching them.” “As you wish, sir,” Mather replied. “But bear in mind, should anything

happen to you, it is I who will face your father.” “Never fear,” a chuckle tinged the highwayman’s voice, “I won't leave you to so deplorable a fate. I have no intention of allowing these common brigands to get the best of me.” “Would that be common in comparison to a not-socommon brigand such as yourself, sir?” Phoebe asked. “You don't take kindly to

being abducted by one brigand, while being pursued by another?” “A comedian,” she commented dryly. “A comedian is a much safer wager than those fellows," he said, then slinked off in the direction they had come. Phoebe followed Mather in the opposite direction. She waited until she was sure they were alone, then groaned and

swayed. “Miss!” He caught her before she collapsed. She leaned heavily on him. “I-forgive me.” "Are you all right, Miss?” Phoebe nodded. “You understand the strain of two abduction attempts in one night?” “Well…” he began. “I'm unaccustomed to skulking about in the forest.”

She shivered for good measure. “Indeed,” he agreed, and allowed her to lean on him as they started forward. Phoebe sighed. “Perhaps…” she let her voice drop off. “What is it, Miss?” He guided her around a large branch. “If I were back in the safety of my carriage…” “We'll soon have you

back,” he replied. “Can’t we go directly there? Your master will make short work of those men. We could—” “Oh no, we must be sure those rogues are dispatched before we return.” “Which rogues do you refer to?” she demanded. “Beg your pardon, Miss?” His voice, she realized, carried a note that was just a

bit too solicitous. She yanked free of his grasp. “Very funny, my man.” “Are you sure you're all right, Miss?” he asked with no change of demeanor. “No, I am not all right. Would you be all right if you had been abducted against your will?” “No,” he answered thoughtfully, “I suppose not.” Phoebe distinguished the edge of the forest up ahead.

“We’ll wait here.” Mather grasped her arm and urged her down to the ground. She resisted. “I don't want to sit on the ground. It is wet.” “Better wet than dead.” He shoved her with enough force that she plopped onto the ground. “You are no gentleman," she muttered. They waited for what she

estimated to be twenty minutes when Mather said, “You’re looking fit, sir.” She twisted to see Mather’s master approaching. Even in the darkness she discerned his limp. “Well enough, Mather,” he rejoined. Phoebe rose as he neared. “Shall we?” Grasping her arm, he started toward the road. “That’s a bit of a limp

you’ve got there,” she said as they broke from the trees. “Have a little trouble when you did away with those scoundrels?” He looked sharply at her. “I did not do away with anyone, madam." “You did away with the one you shot.” “I didn’t kill him or the others. Though, they will have blazing headaches tomorrow.”

“Payment for injuries inflicted?” Mather asked, keeping his gaze straight ahead. “It was,” he said with emphasis. “But only because the one fellow was reluctant to lay down his weapon.” Mather gave a single nod. “As you say, sir.” Phoebe glanced about for the carriage. The dilapidated farmhouse lay to the left a short distance, but the

carriage wasn't where they'd left it in front of the building. She scanned to the right and spied the coach sticking out from the trees a little farther down the road. “Why didn’t they take the carriage?” “Lack of funds, I would imagine,” the highwayman replied. “What does that mean?” “It means, their employer didn't pay them enough to

make it worth the possibility of getting their heads shot off.” “I did not hear your pistol discharge—and you said you didn't kill them,” she said. “I didn’t kill them,” he said irritably. “Still, they resisted. Once I relieved the one gentleman of this, however,” he produced a pistol from his waistband at it his back, “they were much

more docile.” Phoebe grasped his wrist. He halted. “A Circa Percussion Dueling pistol,” she remarked. “Deluxe nickel plated engraved barrel, trigger and butt plate.” She dropped his hand and it fell limp at his side. Phoebe regarded him. “Rather fine weapon for a highwayman. But then, it would seem highwaymen live fine lives

these days.” She looked meaningfully at his clothes. He lifted a brow. “As I have yet to rob you, madam, I don't see that you are justified in branding me a highwayman.” Phoebe extended her arms, holding tight to her cloak. The breeze filtered through the cloak and around the silk gown she wore. Locks of golden hair that had come loose from their pins

fluttered before her vision. “I have nothing of value.” He grinned and a flash of white teeth shone. “But, my dear, you have a great deal to offer.” Phoebe blinked, then narrowed her eyes. “Tell Adam the answer is still no.” “Ahhh," he intoned. "Progress. Does Lord Stoneleigh know of the illustrious Adam?” “Lord Stoneleigh? What

has he to do with Adam?" A chill shot through her. These men weren't friends of Adam. "What does Lord Stoneleigh want with me?" she demanded. The highwayman made a tsking sound. “Regan was right. You are in a fit.” “What are you talking about?” He didn’t respond, but stuffed the pistol into his waistband, then glanced at the

sky. “We should be off.” “Aye,” Mather replied and began again in the direction of the carriage. The highwayman bowed slightly and gestured for her to precede him. Phoebe stepped back a pace. He didn’t move until she retreated a second step, then he moved in tandem with her third step. His gaze didn’t waver from hers but, on the fifth step, he halted.

“You can't go far.” “Far enough.” He leapt forward. Phoebe dodged his grab. Turning on the ball of her foot as he propelled past her, she kicked his rump. He stumbled, landing face down on the ground. Phoebe dashed for the trees. Mather’s shout broke the quiet. She had just entered the trees when iron fingers seized her arm. He swung her around and into his

arms. The highwayman caught her with a grunt. “Perhaps you ought to have foregone the honey cakes at Drucilla’s soirée.” Phoebe kicked his shin. He yanked her roughly to him. “You will do no better in these woods than you would have at the hands of those footpads. Don’t forget, they could awake anytime. Where would you be, then?”

He wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her from the ground. She allowed her body to sag and her weight yanked him downward. “Bloody wench.” He hauled her over his shoulder. For a horrible instant it seemed the momentum would land her on her head. She threw her arms around his waist as his arm clamped down on her legs. "By

heavens, sir, I have been conked on the head once tonight as a consequence of you. I would prefer not to make it twice." He muttered something under his breath and started toward the carriage. Phoebe noted his limp had become more pronounced. “Does that injury hurt?” He remained silent. When they stepped from the

forest, the carriage sat within a few feet of the trees with Mather at the open door. For the second time that night, the brigand threw her onto the cushions of the coach. “Mather,” he said, stepping in behind her, “take us from this accursed place.” Mather closed the door. Phoebe edged toward the opposite door. “Pray, do not force me to chase you again.” He settled

himself against the cushion opposite her. “Have you anything to say for yourself?” The coach started forward and Phoebe was jostled to one side. “It is you who owe me the explanation.” She righted herself. “You kidnapped me.” “I am no more a kidnapper than a highwayman.” She arched a brow. “I am taking you to

Regan.” Her mind raced. What did the earl want with her? Did this have something to do with Heddy? Heddy was furious with him for dallying with Lady Phillips, and decided to teach him a lesson by not meeting him this evening as planned. But Lord Stoneleigh hadn't seemed the least bit concerned about Heddy when he'd flirted with Phoebe earlier that evening.

In any case, the earl certainly didn't make a habit of kidnapping ladies. As for the man sitting across from her… “Sir, whatever your game, this has gone far enough. One does not kidnap a lady.” “Miss Ballingham, really —” “Miss Ballingham—you think I'm Heddy?” Relief flooded through her. “This is nothing more than a case of

mistaken identity.” “Indeed?” “You have mistaken me for Hester Ballingham. Understandable, given that I am in her carriage.” “A fine barouchelandau.” Phoebe gave him a recriminating look. “I understand it is a rare vehicle, but I am not her.” “I see," he replied. "So aside from sharing an

expensive carriage, you also share the same unusual hair color?" "Only somewhat," Phoebe said. "Heddy is fair haired, but not so golden." "Your hair is, indeed, golden," he said in a soft voice. Before Phoebe could reply, he added, "Where is Miss Ballingham this evening? Why isn't she in her own carriage?” “Heddy is ill.” Or she

would be once Phoebe got her hands on her. Heddy knew the barouche would be recognized, so had sent the expensive carriage for Phoebe, while she used a nondescript chaise she kept for assignations with gentleman she wished to keep secret from her current protector—in this case, Lord Stoneleigh. The highwayman leaned forward and placed a hand on

hers. “You needn’t worry. I didn't lie when I said I would deliver you straight to Regan.” Phoebe snatched her hand away from beneath his. “I do not wish to go to Lord Stoneleigh.” He sat back. “You will, no doubt, be just as pleased to see him as you were Lord Beasley earlier this evening.” Phoebe narrowed her eyes. “You were spying on

me.” “I was at the ball.” “Then you saw Lord Stoneleigh dance with me.” “I didn't see Regan at the party.” “He was there," Phoebe insisted. The corner of the brigand’s mouth twitched. “You carried on shamelessly with Lord Beasley.” "What? I danced with him twice. That is hardly

shameless." "Indeed, it is," he said. "But you were also dancing much too close." She groaned inwardly. Lord Stoneleigh’s cupid clearly knew of Hester's reputation for shameless flirtations and feminine tantrums, and—"Wait," Phoebe exclaimed. "If you saw me at the ball, how could you possibly mistake me for Hester?"

"It wasn’t until I saw you in the coach that I knew you were the woman I saw dancing with Beasley." "By heavens, why didn't you speak with me then, make sure who I was before embarking on such a numskull plot?" she demanded. "I fully intended to seek an introduction to you, sweetheart, but when I received word that Miss

Ballingham had left in her coach I was forced to leave." He smiled. "Imagine my disappointment when I discovered you were Regan's paramour." "Disappointment?" He regarded her. "I wonder what Regan would do if I kept you to myself instead of giving you back." She stared. "Give me back? I’m not yours to give— or his to have!"

The highwayman sighed. “I suppose he would fret if we didn’t meet him as promised. He explained his offence, by the way. Really? Is it fair to punish him for a slight indiscretion—or were his trinkets not expensive enough to sooth your wounded pride?” "I hardly call disappearing into Lord Rupert's gardens with Lord Phillip's young widow a

slight indiscretion." The words were out of her mouth before she realized her mistake. “So I thought,” he said. “I am not Hester,” she shot back. “The trip to Brahan Seer is only two days—” “Two days?” Phoebe exploded. “Two days there and two days back. Then there are the days you and Regan will

reconcile.” Four days—or more? Panic coursed through her. Her uncle would be frantic, not to mention, she couldn't begin to comprehend the affect this affair might have on her career as an English spy. Her employment with the Crown was tenuous, despite the fact she had proven her worth when information she gathered two years ago exposed Lord

Capell of Parliament as the man responsible for the disappearance of a dozen young girls. He'd been supplying brothels with the girls, many of whom had been murdered by the brothel owners. Phoebe saw her hard work going up in smoke. Her mentor, Lord Alistair Redgrave, might overlook the fact she'd been spirited away in the dead of night by a man,

but her superior, Lord Briarden, wouldn't appreciate the attention such a scandal would bring to one of his agents. This is what she got for allowing her maid to leave when she'd claimed illness. Phoebe should have gone home with the girl. “I can't be away for four days,” Phoebe insisted. “My apologies for interfering with your other assignations,” the

highwayman said. “There will be hell to pay when my absence is discovered,” she snapped. “Regan will sooth your pride.” “I am speaking of my family, you fool. My uncle will have your hide.” “I wager Regan will appease him as well,” he replied. She stared. “You truly are mad.”

“You don't wish to snare an earl?” he asked. “I do not.” “Perhaps you have your sights set higher?” She didn’t break from his stare. “Has it occurred to you that if I am telling the truth, you will be the unfortunate who is forced to marry me?” "So you are ambitious," he murmured. "But at least you're honest." “Take yourself out of my

carriage,” she ordered. “We're in the middle of nowhere. Where would I go?” Phoebe gave him a sweet smile. “Go to the devil.” “And my coachman?” “You will need him more than I.” “You would drive these chestnuts yourself?” “Why not?” "Interesting," he said. She scowled. "That I can drive a pair of horses?"

“No. That you haven’t yet resorted to fainting.” ***** Phoebe prayed the man sitting across from her believed she was sleeping. He had left off further conversation when she relaxed into the corner and allowed her mouth to go slack. She cracked open one eye and observed him. Eyes closed, he too, appeared to be resting. She didn't believe that

for an instant. The carriage slowed and the highwayman opened his eyes. Phoebe sighed as if the slight disturbance had intruded upon her sleep and she slumped more heavily into the corner. A moment of silence followed before the door opposite her opened, then clicked shut. The carriage swayed slightly and she knew he had climbed up top. The

vehicle settled and she opened her eyes and scooted closer to the door. They swayed left as the road curved. She gripped the handle and carefully opened the door. The latch released with a tiny click. Phoebe held her breath, but no cry of discovery came from above. The carriage hugged the shoulder of the road so that she could nearly touch the tree branches. She

lifted her skirts, poised to jump, but hesitated at sight of the fast moving ground. She had fallen from the carriage earlier and was none the worse for wear. Hadn’t they been moving slower then? She glanced at the dark forest. If she injured herself, how far would she have to walk to civilization? That challenge, she realized, paled in comparison to her uncle's reaction if he discovered

she’d been closeted away with a man for days. Phoebe jumped. She hit the ground quicker than anticipated. The impact knocked the wind from her. She wheezed for air as a sharp pain shot through her head. The retreating carriage blurred in her vision, seeming to vanish into the yawning mouth of a black cave. She scrambled to her feet and plunged into the

fuzzy darkness of the trees. A sound emanated behind her, but the pounding inside her head muffled it beyond recognition. Phoebe closed her eyes and tried willing the pain into submission. She opened them just in time to miss a low hanging branch. The quick swerve brought her to her knees.

Chapter Three

Flickering light penetrated Phoebe’s consciousness. Orange and red flames swam before her vision and she blinked into focus the fire that burned in the hearth beyond the foot of the bed where she lay. She moved her gaze to the left and saw a door leading to...

Phoebe concentrated in an effort to place her surroundings, but the world outside that door—the world beyond this moment— remained a mystery. She looked to the wall on her left, saw an armoire, then the deep alcove farther left. She started at sight of the tall form standing at the alcove’s end, staring out the window. The highwayman. He shifted. She clamped

shut her eyes. The pad of boots on the carpet drew near and continued around the bed to her right. A faint rustle of clothes followed, then silence. She waited a moment before slitting open one eye. The highwayman reclined in a chair beside the bed. His legs, stretched out before him, spanned the remaining length of the bed. His head rested against the chair back and his eyes were closed. He

reached up and rubbed the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger as if to ward off a headache. His hand fell away from his face and Phoebe closed her eyes. Had he seen her? She abruptly felt the dislocation of air near her face, the sense of his nearness, though she had heard no sound of movement. “What possessed you to take such a foolhardy risk?” he whispered.

A wisp of air brushed her eyelashes. His sigh. A soft scratching sounded at the door and a dull pain rumbled through her head. The door clicked open and a voice said, “You must rest, sir.” Mather. “If the lady wakens with you hovering over her as you are, you're likely to give her a start.”

“Unlikely,” the highwayman replied in hushed tones. Phoebe knew by the location of his voice, he had straightened away from her. “Any woman who would jump from a moving carriage isn't easily frightened. I'll be glad when Connor has another look at her. Until now, she hasn’t moved a muscle.” “He promised to be here bright and early,” Mather

said. “Yes,” the highwayman replied in a dry tone. “I wonder if his dedication is due to concern or curiosity.” He chuckled. “The good doctor gave me an odd look when I told him Heddy had fallen from the carriage. Damn, but I hope he doesn’t take it in his head to contact my father.” “Old Connor knows which side his bread is

buttered on,” Mather said with such loyalty, Phoebe wanted to roll her eyes. “My father is the one who butters Connor’s bread,” the highwayman said. “Speaking of,” Mather began. “Please," he cut in, "no more lectures on how my father will whip you should you allow me to stray from the path of righteousness.” “As you wish, sir. If I

must, I can face him with the news that you collapsed from fatigue.” “I doubt he'll pay that news much heed.” Phoebe could contain herself no longer. She opened her eyes and said, “Such a paragon of a father would surely have your despicable hide for this foolish stunt.” Both men looked at her. She stared back at them. “I heartily wish to meet your

father and inform him what a beast of a son he sired.” “I see that crack to your head did nothing to diminish your wit,” the highwayman said. Phoebe gingerly touched the gash on her forehead. “My head pounds dreadfully. What happened?” “You jumped from the carriage.” She shot him a reproachful look. “I know

that. What I do not recall is how I came to be here. How did you find me?” He raised both brows. “I believe I mentioned you might have done better to leave off eating those honey cakes.” Phoebe frowned. “When you jumped,” he explained, “the carriage rocked.” She narrowed her eyes, but ended up squinting due to

the sudden sharp throb in her head. The pain subsided, and she said, “If the carriage rocked, it was your large girth tramping about up top that caused it to do so.” The highwayman angled his head. “As you say, madam. We shall call it luck, then.” “Whose?” she muttered. “Certainly not mine.” “I beg to differ. If I hadn’t discovered you, you

might be among the dead instead of the living.” “Rubbish,” she retorted, then added in a quieter tone when the pounding in her head again thrummed, “Where are we?” “Glaistig Uain.” “What is that and where is it?” “The Green Lady Inn, not far from where you jumped from the carriage.” “Oh,” she replied, then,

“I require some privacy.” “Whatever you need, Miss Ballingham, just ask.” Phoebe flushed. He regarded her more closely. “Is something wrong?” “Nothing that a moment of privacy won’t cure.” “Mather or I can attend to anything you need,” he insisted. “Of all the bloody inconvenience,” she burst out.

“The day I can't manage a chamber pot myself is the day I meet my maker.” A distinct stillness cloaked the room. “Considering the circumstances,” he said in a tight voice, “I find that jest in bad taste.” “Never mind.” Phoebe sat upright and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “Miss Ballingham,” he strode around the bed, “you

are to remain in bed.” “I can't remain in bed when the chamber pot is in the corner.” She shoved to her feet as he neared. The room spun. Her stomach lurched and she felt herself falling forward. Strong arms grasped her shoulders and pulled her against a solid body. Phoebe recognized the smell of sandalwood and clutched at the lapels of the

highwayman’s open jacket. She squeezed her eyes more tightly shut against the nauseating sense of spinning. “B-by heavens.” Her voice, she noted with distress, was not as clear as it had been when she lay in bed. “I am a bit dizzy.” Phoebe felt herself lifted in his arms. She tightened her grasp on his coat against a sense of falling she knew was ridiculous, but she couldn't

keep from burying her face in his chest in an effort to anchor herself. "Easy," he soothed. "Stupid," she managed in a mumble. He didn't answer, and she was eternally grateful when he didn't move. She became aware of the warmth that seeped through his shirt and into her cheek, then the sure, strong beat of his heart. She released a slow breath and he

must have sensed that her orientation had returned for he settled her back onto the bed. Despite the heat of the room, he pulled the blankets up to her chin then began a methodical tucking in of the blankets around her. When he bent over her and switched to the other side, she found herself staring at his angled profile. A hint of whiskers shadowed his jaw, giving him

a dangerous look that had been absent when he'd appeared in her carriage. His raven dark hair brushed the collar of his shirt. She had the urge to see if the tresses were as soft as they appeared. He paused and turned his face to her. Phoebe pressed back into the pillow before realizing the action. He lifted a brow and she flushed. Damn the devil, he was pleasant to look upon and

knew it—knew she'd been thinking just that. Something flicked in his eyes— understanding—and she cursed him again. He went back to securing the blanket in a business-like fashion until she felt as if she were being mummified. She squirmed. “Lay still,” he commanded. The warmth of the blankets bordered on stifling.

She wriggled, then realized the garment she wore wasn't her gown. “What am I wearing?” The flash of gray flannel she’d seen before swooning came to mind. Her cheeks warmed again. Someone had removed her gown, then dressed her in the nightgown she now wore. Phoebe glanced from the highwayman to Mather, then fastened her gaze back onto

the highwayman. There was no question which of the two men would have undertaken the task of undressing her. The culprit straightened, apparently finished with making her a veritable prisoner beneath the blankets. “Perhaps you should take yourself off for a rest.” Phoebe said, gritting her teeth as much against the throbbing in her head as to control her rising temper.

He gave her a quizzical look. “Sir.” Mather stepped forward. “Mather,” the brigand said without looking at him, “I'll stay.” He glanced over his shoulder at the window where soft light had begun to filter into the room. “Mrs. Grayson may already be about. If she isn’t, please wake her and inform her Miss Ballingham requires tea and

some of those cakes I know she prepared yesterday.” “I thought you said I was too fat and shouldn't eat more cakes,” Phoebe said. “I said nothing of the kind.” “You most certainly did,” she replied. “You said the carriage nearly tipped over when I jumped from it.” He bent, placed a hand on each side of her and leaned in close to her face. “I

didn't say the carriage nearly tipped over. I do say, however, let both those incidents be a lesson.” “Lesson?” “Yes. Not to repeat such addlepated actions in the future. Mather,” he straightened, “see to Mrs. Grayson.” “Aye, sir.” Mather left. Phoebe, covered to the chin, wriggled beneath the blankets. “It's intolerably hot

under here.” She squirmed more. “And I can't do without that chamber pot much longer.” “Had you continued sleeping, you could have done without it.” “What do you think woke me?” The corner of his mouth twitched. “I'll help you with the pot, Heddy.” “You will not.” “But I will.” He fetched

the pot and returned to the bed. She eyed the pot, then him. “I can manage.” “As you did a moment ago?” “Mrs. Grayson, then.” His demeanor turned thoughtful. “Mrs. Grayson is a stout woman. Still… perhaps another maid might assist her.” “Slip the pot under the blanket.”

“If you miscalculate—" The door opened and an older woman entered, tray in hand, followed by Mather. “Just as you said,” Mather said. “She was already bustling about the kitchen.” Mrs. Grayson set the tray on the nightstand. At sight of the tea and cakes on the tray Phoebe’s stomach growled. “Of course I was,” the housekeeper said with an

indignant sniff. “It is nearly five in the morning.” “Good morning, Bridgett,” the highwayman said. “Morning,” the woman replied as she slipped an arm beneath Phoebe’s back and gently lifted her away from the pillows. The covers fell forward. Phoebe grabbed for them, but Mrs. Grayson had propped the pillows against the

headboard and was easing Phoebe back against them before she could grasp the blanket. The housekeeper urged her arms out of the way, then twitched the blanket up over her breasts. “There, now, dearie.” Mrs. Grayson plucked a folded napkin from the tray and gave it a smart shake before placing it on Phoebe’s lap. “Are you hungry?” “That's not all,” Phoebe

said. Mrs. Grayson gave her an inquiring look, but the brigand said, "Miss Ballingham requires assistance.” He lifted the chamber pot for all to see. Use of the chamber pot, along with hot tea and cakes, revived Phoebe. She set her cup of tea on the tray and glanced at the armoire where Mrs. Grayson said her cloak

hung. Any hope of discovering if her reticule was there with the cloak was dashed by the presence of her highwayman. Phoebe studied the scoundrel. He rested, once again, eyes closed, head reclining on the high back of the chair. “I didn't think to ask your name,” she murmured. “Kiernan MacGregor, at your service." The sound of his voice startled her. He

opened his eyes and sat up. “How's your head?” “Better.” “That was a foolish move, Heddy.” Phoebe opened her mouth, but the intensity in his gaze stopped the retort. She took a deep breath. “I did it because I wish to avoid the scandal of being away for days with a strange man.” Surprise melted into a cool look. “A man you know

will do, though?” Her response was forestalled by a knock at the door. “Come in,” Kiernan instructed. The door opened and Mather stepped inside. “Dr. Connor here to see the lady, sir.” Mather stepped aside and a small, gray haired man entered the room. Kiernan came to his feet. He strode forward, hand

extended. Dr. Connor grasped one side of the gold-rimmed glasses he wore and set them farther back on the bridge of his nose. He switched the black bag he carried from his right hand to the left and grasped Kiernan’s hand in a warm greeting. “Good to see you, Connor,” Kiernan said. “How are you, lad?” the doctor asked. “Mather, here, tells me you're not taking care

of yourself as ye ought.” Kiernan laughed. A deep rich laugh, Phoebe grudgingly noticed, that filled the room and settled deep inside the heart of the listener. “Mather, long ago, appointed himself my mother,” he said, giving him a stern look. Mather bowed and backed out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Dr. Connor frowned. “You look as if you could use a rest.” “Soon, Connor, soon. But first,” Kiernan motioned to Phoebe, “you have a more pressing patient.” The doctor approached. He sat down on the bed beside her and, setting the black bag on the floor, eyed Phoebe. “A nasty fall, my dear.” He placed a hand on her forehead, tipping her head

back slightly. “Let me have a look.” He leaned in closer and studied the gash on her forehead, then said with a glance at Kiernan, “Have you a candle?” Kiernan looked around the room, then strode to the small secretary in the alcove. He picked up the candle sitting there, and hurried to the fire and lit it. “Put it on the nightstand,” the doctor said as

Kiernan approached. Kiernan placed the candle beside Phoebe's tea cup on the tray and Dr. Connor placed a thumb on her right eyelid and gently pulled the lid up as he tilted her head toward the candle light. He studied the eye for a moment, did the same with the left eye, then released her. “How is your sight?” he asked. “Fine now,” she replied.

“When I first awoke, it was blurry.” He nodded, then reached into his black bag and pulled out a stethoscope. Phoebe grasped the end of the stethoscope and examined it much as he had her head. She looked at him. “A binaural stethoscope. Where did you find one?” His face lit with surprise. “You're familiar with this instrument?”

“Indeed I am.” She fingered one of the tubes. “The article in the London Gazette was most informative.” “You read that article? That came into print in eighteen twenty-nine.” Phoebe thought for a moment. “August twelfth, I believe.” She looked from the incredulous doctor to Kiernan, who regarded her with a tilt of his head. “A

woman can read as well as a man,” she said. “Aye,” Dr. Connor agreed, pulling her attention back to him. “That she can. That-she-can.” “How did you come by it?” she asked. “I didn’t think they were in use.” “You’re correct. But I have a friend who knows the inventor.” Phoebe’s gaze followed when he looked at Kiernan.

“You know Nicholas Comins?” she demanded of Kiernan. “Not I, Miss Ballingham, my father.” “Now, if you don't mind,” Dr. Connor pried the stethoscope from her hands, “I will finish." The poking and prodding came to an end twenty minutes later with Dr. Connor’s instructions that Phoebe was not to move from

her bed, and that her head was to remain elevated. “You took a nasty blow,” he admonished. “You’re lucky it didn't crack your skull wide open.” “Is that any indication of how hard the head is?” Kiernan asked. Dr. Connor chuckled. “It has more to do with luck. But it wasn't very wise.” He looked pointedly at Phoebe. “You would have done

the same had this—this—” “This what?” Kiernan inquired. “This man,” she retorted. “If he had kidnapped you, you would have done the same.” “Kidnapped?” Dr. Connor’s attention riveted onto Kiernan. Kiernan shrugged. “The fall addled her brains.” “Kiernan,” the doctor began.

“You remember Lord Stoneleigh?” Kiernan cut in. “Aye.” “Miss Ballingham is his special guest.” Comprehension lit the doctor’s eyes and Phoebe knew Lord Stoneleigh's reputation as a womanizer had preceded him even here, in the wilds of Scotland. The doctor snapped his bag closed and rose. “Remember,” he said in a

stern voice, “you're not to get out of that bed today. I'll see you tomorrow.” He started for the door. “Doctor,” Phoebe cried. He turned. “Yes, Miss Ballingham?” “You aren’t going to leave me here?” “You can't be moved, young lady,” he replied in a kindly, but firm voice. He looked at Kiernan. “Inform Lord Stoneleigh she isn't to

be moved until I give permission.” “I'll see to it, Connor. Thank you for coming.” Phoebe watched, mouth agape, as Kiernan escorted him to the door. Dr. Connor exited, and Mather entered. “I am returning to Edinburgh the moment I recover,” Phoebe burst out. “Don't excite yourself,” Kiernan said. “Cease this foolishness,”

she snapped. “I'm not the one who jumped from a moving carriage,” he replied. “I am not Heddy, I tell you." “Who might you be, then? Cleopatra?” Phoebe stiffened. I will seek recompense for this, Heddy, she telepathed. “For a man who thinks so little of the lady, you are going to a great deal of trouble to keep

her in your company.” A smile twitched one corner of his mouth. “A man has a right to change his opinion.” Phoebe cut her gaze to Mather. “Sir, do you write?” “Aye, Miss.” “Fine. Be so good as to fetch paper and pen.” “Miss?” “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She shook her head in exasperation. Her vision

blurred and she pressed the fingers of her right hand to her temple. “Heddy?” Kiernan demanded. “You are to write a letter for me,” she ordered Mather. Mather looked at his master. “Do you intend to inform your other…er, friends that you are no longer at their disposal?” Kiernan asked. “Never mind, Mather,”

Phoebe said. “I will not require your help after all.” Kiernan made a tsking sound. “You're going to keep the poor fellows hanging?” “All I need from you, Mather,” she went on, “is an address.” “An address?” “Yes. One I am sure you have.” “I know very few addresses,” Mather hedged. “I'm in need of only one

address. I must—no, it is my duty—” she pinned him with a hard look “—your duty, as well, to inform this person’s father of his dishonorable actions.” Mather paled and satisfaction surged through her. Kiernan took the two steps to her bed and squatted down face level with her. “Miss Ballingham, I have been far more honorable than

I would have preferred. I assure you, my father would agree.” Phoebe blinked, aware of a frustrated heat rising to her cheeks. Her head began to pound. “Please leave,” she rubbed her temples. “I require privacy.” “Mather,” Kiernan said, rising, “fetch the chamber pot.” ***** Phoebe put one foot in

front of her, careful to take each descending stair slowly. Though loath to admit it, Dr. Connor was correct. She would be unable to ride for another day. Tomorrow would be four days since she disappeared. Her uncle must be frantic, and the fact she hadn't been contacted or rescued by one of Lord Redgrave's spies had her worried. Where was this Green Lady Inn that she was

out of his network? Phoebe paused on the final step. No dizziness. She released a breath, thankful she hadn't given in to the sense of unease she experienced while staring down from the top stair at what seemed to be an abyss. She tugged the bodice of her dress. “A might small it be for ye, lass,” Phoebe mimicked Mrs. Grayson’s tone when the housekeeper

had produced the dress. “A might small, indeed,” she muttered. How was it possible to have ripped her skirt from hem to hip when she jumped from the carriage? Mrs. Grayson had given the gown to the village’s seamstress for repair so, until she got the gown back, Phoebe was stuck with the tight dress. She tugged harder on the bodice. Blasted thing was made for a

twelve year old girl. Phoebe fidgeted with her shawl, but her efforts to flatten it over her breasts were useless. Tied over itself, the shawl only emphasized the fact her breasts nearly spilled over the narrow lace. She finally gave up and loosened the tie, throwing the corner over her shoulder so that the edge hung over the bodice. She started down the narrow hallway at a sedate

pace. Halfway down the corridor, Mrs. Grayson's voice filtered to her from a room up ahead. “Dora swears we will no’ have snow for at least two months,” the housekeeper said. Masculine laughter followed. Kiernan MacGregor. Phoebe slowed. “Dora hasn't always proven reliable,” he said. “I

shall hazard the ride north.” A chair squeaked and Phoebe realized one of the two was rising. She turned on her heel with the intention of hurrying back down the hallway, but the corridor spun in a dark swirl around her. She groped at the wall. “Heddy.” Kiernan’s voice closed in on her. Phoebe found herself swept off her feet, her face crushed against the velvet

lapel of his wool morning coat. “What are you doing out of bed?” he demanded, bringing his face so close to hers, Phoebe swore she could taste the saddle soap he had washed with that morning. “I see by your coat you have already been riding this morning,” she complained. “I am allowed that privilege,” he replied tersely. “You are not.”

“Dr. Connor said I might leave that cursed bed,” she retorted. “I—” Kiernan began, but was cut off by Mrs. Grayson. “Good Lord, what’s happened?” She touched a hand to Phoebe’s forehead. "You're a might flushed, dearie.” “No doubt due to being surprised,” Phoebe grumbled. “Put me down, sir.” “That I will. Step aside,

Bridget.” He hugged her so tightly a rush of air was forced from her lungs. “By heavens,” she wheezed. “Now, Kiernan,” Mrs. Grayson began as he started down the hallway. “I don't wish to spend any more time in bed,” Phoebe protested. “Kiernan!” Mrs. Grayson’s shout stopped him. He faced her.

“Bridget—” “Dinna’ Bridget me,” she ordered. “Bring her into the kitchen. She can sit with me at the table. It'll do her good to be up and about. She is less likely to do herself harm under your watchful eye.” He hesitated. Mrs. Grayson gave Phoebe a knowing look. He must have discerned its meaning, for he started down the hallway toward the

kitchen as he muttered the single word, “Women.”

Chapter Four

Kiernan leaned back in his chair and studied Heddy. There was a flush in her cheeks and her eyes were clear. Being out of bed agreed with her. And he couldn't deny the ridiculous dress she wore agreed with him. “More tea?” Mrs. Grayson asked. Heddy shook her head

and the housekeeper looked inquiringly at him. “I’ve had quite enough tea for one day, thank you, Bridget.” “Perhaps, then,” Heddy said, “you should be off attending to business.” Kiernan rubbed his chin. “I have no business as interesting as you.” Her lips thinned. “I am not Heddy.” “You keep saying that.

Yet, not once, have you offered an alternate identity.” “I'm sure I told you that I’m Phoebe Wallington, Lord Albery’s niece.” “No," he said. "I don’t think you did. I haven't had the pleasure of Lord Albery’s acquaintance.” She raised a cool brow. “He spends little time in Scotland.” She faced Mrs. Grayson. “After three days, it must be clear I'm not who he

thinks I am.” Heddy shot him a sidelong glance. “Even if I were, he had no right to kidnap me.” “Kidnap?” He tsked. “Come now, Heddy, we have discussed this. If not for me, God knows what those brigands would have done—” The barking of dogs outside interrupted him. Kiernan rose and went to the window where he lifted the curtain and surveyed the street.

Mrs. Grayson stepped up beside him. “Oh dear.” “What is it?” Heddy asked. “Strangers,” he replied. Kiernan studied the man who walked in the forefront of the newcomers. The carved walking stick he leaned on showed wear and the haunted look in his eyes confirmed he'd been too long on the road. Mrs. Grayson clucked

her tongue. “Look at the women, as thin as rails. I made bread yesterday.” She turned from the window. “Wait.” Kiernan caught her arm. “I don’t care for the looks of the leader.” “They're hungry,” she protested. “Ye can't expect the homeless to look like proper lords and ladies.” “Bridget,” he released her, “forego the bread for just a moment.”

Kiernan exited through the kitchen door and headed toward the small crowd gathered around the strangers. A cold nose nuzzled each hand and he glanced down at two hounds that nudged for attention. He gave each an affectionate pat, then brushed them aside as he stopped before the newcomer’s leader. “M’lord,” the man said. Kiernan nodded an

acknowledgment and surveyed the group before returning his attention to the man. “Where are you from?” “Hay territory, m’lord.” “Hay? Are things still so bad in the north you couldn't find work between there and here?” The man looked surprised. “‘Tis powerful bad, m’lord. We found what work we could, but…” “There are only seven of

you?” “Aye.” The man pointed to the man and woman at the rear of the company. “That is George and Sharon.” He went on to name the remaining three men and the other woman, ending with himself, “Alan Hay.” “No children?” Kiernan asked. Alan pointed to the second woman. “Rebecca’s bairn died two days into the

journey.” He nodded toward Sharon. “She had a wee one, but not enough milk for the babe. We buried the children in fields.” “Good God,” a female voice behind Kiernan said. He whirled. Heddy stood a few paces away. “What are you doing here?" Her attention remained on the newcomers and a look of surprised recognition flitted across her face.

“We only ask a bit of food,” Alan broke in. Kiernan faced him. “Food will be provided.” “Thank you. Thank you very much.” “What is your destination?” Alan frowned. “Wherever we can find work.” “The Glaistig Uain can offer no work for one man, much less four. You'll do well

to move farther south. For tonight, you may sleep in the stable.” Kiernan motioned to the stables across the lane. Alan's mouth thinned. “Kind of you to let us sleep with the animals, m’lord.” “Aye,” he replied, then, “Baths can be arranged, if you like.” Alan nodded. “The women will be glad for that." “I imagine so,” Kiernan agreed. “Particularly if the

men avail themselves of the luxury, as well.” He gave a final nod and took two steps to Heddy. Her gaze remained fixed on Alan. “What is it, Heddy?” “You see that?” She nodded at the thick, wavy stick Alan carried. “The walking stick?” “A swordstick. Silver mounted buckhorn handle, if I’m not mistaken. Certainly disguises the sword hidden

within quite well, doesn’t it? And those.” Kiernan followed her line of sight to the combination weapon stuffed into Alan Hay’s belt. “The short hanger, a hunting sword. Ideal for mounting a flintlock. Queen Anne cannon barrel type. And that one.” She nodded at the weapon in George’s belt. “At least forty years old, but still deadly. Four barrels, two on each side.”

The group turned, led by one of the villagers, and started for the stables. With a final glance at Alan Hay, Kiernan returned his attention to Heddy. “They have traveled far. Weapons would be a necessity.” “True,” she agreed. “But those look well used.” “It's likely they survived the journey by hunting.” “But what do they hunt?” Heddy murmured.

His gaze caught on the shawl that had fallen afoul of her bodice. “You'll catch your death.” He grasped the shawl’s edges. Her attention broke from the strangers and she looked at him. Kiernan tugged the shawl across her breasts. He would have to find a way to thank Mrs. Grayson for giving Heddy this particular dress. Heddy glanced down at the shawl, then raised her

face to his, her mouth turned down in a dry expression. Kiernan laughed and dropped his hands to his sides. He glanced again at the retreating Hays—his attention flicking over the walking stick— before grasping Heddy’s arm and leading her toward the inn. “How is it you're acquainted with weapons?” he asked. “My uncle is an amateur

collector. I have been subjected to long lectures on weapons and their uses.” “You spoke of your uncle before.” Something Regan hadn't mentioned about her. One of the hounds bounded up to his side and woofed. Kiernan gave the dog a playful cuff on the nose. “My father died when I was seven," Heddy answered. "My mother when I was fourteen."

"I'm sorry," he said. "It was long ago." "What of your remaining family?" he asked. “They are…a mixed cup.” The dog bounded off in pursuit of the other hound that had shot across the lane toward the stables. “How so?” Kiernan looked down at her. One corner of her mouth twitched in the first indication

of amusement he’d observed, but she answered with gravity, “My father’s brother is a good man. His wife, however, isn't so amiable.” “Why?” Heddy laughed, the sound devoid of warmth. “The most common reason: money.” “MacGregor!” Kiernan turned at the call. Davis Hamilton rode toward them. He brought his

horse to a halt beside them. “‘Tis good to see you, MacGregor.” “It's good to see you. What brings you south?” Davis reached down the neck of his shirt and pulled out a letter. “Clachair sends his thanks.” He handed Kiernan the letter. Kiernan took the document and slipped it into the front pocket of his jacket. “We have visitors from Hay

territory. They tell me things are still bad up north. I hope you are faring better.” Davis nodded. “Times aren't easy, but we're managing.” “How long can you stay?” “I'm returning home immediately. I've been gone too long.” “A shame. How are the children?” Davis shrugged. “They

are adjusting to losing their mother.” “And you?” Kiernan asked. Davis’ expression clouded. “I canna’ get used to her being gone.” He cast an embarrassed glance at Heddy, then said, “I'll be going.” Without further conversation, he pulled on his horse’s reins and returned in the direction he had come. Kiernan turned back to

Heddy. “Shall we.” He gestured toward the kitchen door. She turned with him and they began walking. “Your friend doesn’t look nearly as bad off as the others. The Hays look half starved.” She lifted her skirts for the single step that led into the kitchen. “Are they from the same place?” Kiernan opened the door. “Hay country is farther north

than Davis' home.” "Is that where you plan to visit when you go north?" Kiernan shifted his gaze onto her. "Are you thinking you would like to accompany me north, instead of staying at Brahan Seer? Perhaps you'll miss me just a little?" He didn't miss the annoyance that flickered in her eyes, but she said, "I have never visited the northern Highlands. I've heard they are

beautiful." "You would like it there," he said, and, oddly, thought it was true. They entered the kitchen and Kiernan escorted Heddy to the chair she’d occupied earlier. “Bridget.” He looked at the housekeeper who stood at the counter cutting bread. “Ah, I see you are already preparing food for our guests.” “The famine,” Heddy

remarked, pulling his attention back to her. “It has lasted nearly two years now.” She frowned. “Did the two hundred thousand pounds Dr. MacLeod raised to assist with the famine not help?” “They say the Duchess gave aid to three thousand people on her estate,” Mrs. Grayson interjected in a mocking voice. “Three thousand?” Kiernan repeated. “Kind of

her, considering she’s likely displaced that many this year alone—despite her advanced age.” Mrs. Grayson snorted. “More like ten times that many.” “Ah, Bridget, perhaps not quite so many?” “It might as well have been,” she answered in a lofty tone, “for all the damage she caused.” “True,” he agreed.

“Duchess?” Heddy asked. “The Duchess of Sutherland,” he said. “She displaced these people? Then the famine isn't the cause of their plight?” “The famine is the final nail in the coffin. The real cause is the clearances.” “Clearances?” Heddy repeated. “I've heard the word bantered about, mostly as propaganda voiced by elders

not in favor of progress. I understood the changes in Scotland were for the better.” “For the noblemen," he replied. "For the tenants who have been farming the land for generations, the switch to cattle ranching has meant eviction, homelessness, and starvation. The duchess has been clearing her land for years and, though she alone can't be blamed—the Morenish and Breadalbane

evictions are just as terrible— she has displaced nearly fifteen thousand Highlanders.” “By heavens,” Heddy said. “I can see why the three thousand she aided is paltry in comparison. Why is she doing this?” Kiernan gave a wry smile. “The most common reason.” Heddy gave him a questioning look, and he said, “Money.”

***** Phoebe waited until the occupants of the Green Lady Inn had retired for the night before stealing to Kiernan MacGregor’s room, a taper in hand. A clock inside the room struck a muffled gong. She waited until ten more gongs sounded and the room fell silent before tapping lightly on his door. As hoped, silence followed. If her instincts were correct, Kiernan was

checking on Alan Hay. Earlier, when the strangers arrived, there had been no mistaking Kiernan’s curt remarks. He clearly didn't trust Alan Hay. She knocked again. When no answer came, she turned the knob and eased open the door. Silence. Phoebe stepped inside and clicked the door shut behind her. She lifted the candle and scanned the room. An empty

bed sat against the far wall and a chair and small desk were located in the far right hand corner. Her gaze caught on the single letter lying on the desk. Was that the letter from Clachair that Davis had given him? When Davis handed Kiernan the letter and said it was from Clachair, she recalled four years ago, reading a notice in the paper about a five thousand pound

government bounty on a man with the unusual name. The likelihood of the wanted man being the man who'd written the letter was slim, but this was just the sort of information she was obliged to investigation. Phoebe hurried to the desk and picked up the envelope. A thrill raced through her. Was this how her father felt when he investigated Arthur Thistlewood? For the

first time since she had agreed to spy for Great Britain, Phoebe felt the kinship with her father she had always sought. They hadn’t shared their lives, but they shared patriotic passion. The exhilaration was replaced by unexpected regret. If this Clachair was the man wanted by the government, that meant Kiernan MacGregor was himself a criminal. By heavens, she hadn't liked any

of the criminals she'd come in contact with—hadn't considered the possibility she could like any of them. But then, Kiernan MacGregor wasn't like Lord Capell, who sold women, or Lord Wallace, who would sell his Parliament vote to the highest bidder. Phoebe suddenly wished she knew nothing of the letter. But she did. She withdrew the single piece of paper from the envelope and

read. Dear Kiernan, All is well here. I received the writing paper you sent. As always, your generosity comes at the most opportune time. I have distributed the paper amongst my students. They shall make good use of it. Thank you for thinking of us. I look forward to seeing you when next you come north.

Clachair There was nothing the least bit suspicious about the letter, and Kiernan had left it in plain sight. Tension eased within her as she slipped the letter back into the envelope, then placed it back on the desk. How many times would she suspect a man of criminal activities and find out she was wrong? Not many she feared.

The small but distinct creak of the windowsill to the left of her bed alerted Phoebe that someone had entered her room. Only a few minutes earlier, the clock had softly gonged once. So, the intruder had chosen climbing the trellis leading to the portico, instead of risking the lighted hallways. Choices a practiced thief would make. Through slitted eyes, Phoebe watched him move

stealthily from the window to the armoire. He inched open the door and rifled through her cloak and gown. She had removed her reticule and stuffed it beneath the mattress, her father’s letter intact. Had Kiernan read the letter, he would have realized his error in mistaking her for Hester. If only she could show him the letter. But the one piece of evidence that could free her was the one

thing she couldn’t hazard revealing for fear of incriminating her father. The intruder cursed softly. Phoebe tensed. He abruptly turned as though to exit the way he had come, but paused and gazed at her. Moonbeams shone through the window in front of him, but he remained in the shadows. She resisted the urge to squeeze her eyes shut. He couldn't possibly discern

the fact her eyes were cracked open. He lingered, and Phoebe realized he struggled with some inner decision. Could it be the same indecision she had sensed in Alan Hay that afternoon? Was this Alan Hay, or had he sent one of his men to do the robbing? He hurried back to the window and climbed back onto the roof. Phoebe waited until the count of three before

throwing back the covers that hid her fully clothed body. She sat up. No dizziness or pain. Just as Dr. Connor had predicted, today was a turning point in her recovery. She hurried to the window. Peeking outside, she spied the man on the edge of the roof. He turned and fitted a boot into a trellis rung and quickly disappeared from view. Phoebe thrust her hand forward, intending to shove

the curtains aside, only to have her fingers catch in the intricate weave of the Nottingham lace. “By heavens,” she muttered. She disentangled her fingers and yanked aside the curtain. She grasped her skirts, but hesitated. Climbing through the window was no difficult task, but climbing from the roof to the ground might prove too much despite

her improvement. She scanned the lane between the inn and the stables, but the intruder didn't appear as expected. Phoebe hurried to the door and, a moment later, reached the hallway’s end and crept down the stairs. At the bottom, she paused and listened to the silence for a moment, then headed for the kitchen door. Once outside, she sidled alongside the

building to the corner. The lane between the inn and the stables stood empty. She hurried to the stables, around the building, and located a stall door. Phoebe eased open the bolt on the upper half of the Dutch door. When no sound came from within the stall, she opened the door and reached inside for the bolt that locked the lower half. The bolt held firm. She pressed harder, with no better

luck. Phoebe grasped her skirts and hoisted herself up and over the door into the haylittered stall, then eased the door shut. She inched forward until her outstretched hand contacted the far wall and felt her way to the stall door leading into the main part of the stable. The metal of the bolt was cool beneath her fingers and she held her breath while easing it free. A

tiny creak of hinges sounded behind her. Phoebe jerked her head around in time to see the upper door she had entered through opening. Her heart thudded. The door opened more and a large figure became visible in the doorway. “Heddy,” came a harsh whisper. Despite recognizing Kiernan MacGregor’s voice, Phoebe knew an instant of

confusion. “Come here,” he commanded. Before she could respond, a door creaked and muffled voices broke the silence within the stables. Kiernan muttered something incoherent and she startled when he hoisted himself over the door and started toward her. Upon reaching her, he grasped her arm and yanked

her to him as he whispered, “What in blazes are you doing here?” “I could ask you the same,” she retorted. “No, you could not.” She started to reply, but the voices grew louder. “Rest assured we will discuss this later,” he said. “Nothing,” a low voice was saying. “I told ye they were too poor.” “Did you search the fine

gentleman’s room?” another said. “Are you daft?” Phoebe recognized Alan Hay’s voice. “Hush,” the other said. “Never mind,” Alan shot back. “No one inside the inn can hear us.” “You didna’ find anything in the woman’s room?” the other voice asked in such a miserable tone Phoebe felt sorry for the

speaker. Kiernan’s hold on her arm turned painful. “He was in your room?” Kiernan demanded in a harsh whisper. Phoebe pressed a finger to his lips to quiet him. His free hand closed over her hand, but he stilled when Hay's companion said, “What are we to do next? We canna’ go on much farther without provisions.”

“We’ve come this far,” Alan replied. “We’ll make do the rest of the way.” “But we have come only half way,” the other replied, “and ‘tis the easy half. The north is rough land.” Kiernan’s lips tensed beneath Phoebe’s fingers. “There will be plenty once we get there,” Alan said. “Just wait. We’ll make that bitch pay for what she and her kind have done to us—to

us and every other Highlander.” “I still say she’s got too much power,” another grumbled. “It won't be so easy.” Alan laughed, low and cruel. “Even someone as powerful as the Duchess of Sutherland isn't invincible. She's seventy-two. She won't be hard to kill.” Phoebe jerked. The duchess.

Kiernan pulled her hand to his chest. “Be still,” he hissed. “Still…” the other man said. “Are you a coward?” Alan demanded. “I’m no coward,” he replied, “but I’m no fool either.” “If you don't have the stomach for it, get out now,” Alan said. “I didn't say I wanted

out,” the accused said sullenly. A sound like that of a slap on the back was followed by, “It's been difficult, George. You lost the wee one and Shannon hasn't been the same since.” “I should have left her with her father in MacEwen territory,” George answered. “We agreed,” Alan said, “no one suspects us with the women along.”

Phoebe drew a quick breath. Kiernan must have understood her horror, for his free hand shot around her waist and he gave her a squeeze. She felt the hard shape of the pistol stuffed into his belt and wished mightily for an opportunity to aim it at the men who sacrificed women and children for their own ends. “What’s done is done,” Alan said. “It served its

purpose.” Phoebe started at sight of another figure appearing in the doorway through which Kiernan had entered. He backed her into the corner. “Stay here,” he ordered. The man in the doorway disappeared as Kiernan hurried back to the door that opened into the stables. He pulled the pistol from his waistband and, in unison with

the groan of the main stable doors abruptly opening, yanked open the stall door. “Lay down your weapons in the name of the Marquess of Ashlund!” a man yelled. Kiernan lunged into the stables and out of her view. Phoebe rushed forward as Alan Hay’s voice boomed above the female screams, “Lads! Dinna let them—" A shot rang out.

She skidded to a halt in the doorway. Mather stood between the robbers and the main stable door, gun raised heavenward, smoke rising from the barrel. Six men in a semi-circle around the robbers pointed weapons at them. The women screamed again and Phoebe’s snapped her gaze upward. The women cowered away from the edge of the loft. Two of Hay’s men

dropped to their knees, their drawn weapons falling to the ground beside them. The man standing beside Alan Hay whirled toward Kiernan. Kiernan halted as the man thrust a hand inside his coat. Phoebe’s heart leapt. Kiernan leveled his pistol. A heartbeat passed and she thought in that horrible instant that Kiernan had somehow frozen. The man pointed his revolver. She

opened her mouth to shout a warning, but Kiernan fired. The man twisted to the side and blood stained the shirt at his shoulder even before he crumpled to the ground. Alan Hay dropped to his knees beside his comrades and Kiernan motioned the women from the loft. They backed away from the edge, but when one of his men moved toward the ladder, the first woman started down.

“Take them to the salon,” Kiernan instructed his men. Once the women descended, they pleaded innocence for their men. Phoebe glanced left at the pitchfork leaning against the wall and decided it might do for herding them out the door. She froze at seeing the barrel of a revolver suddenly protrude from the stall to her right. Muscular fingers gripped the weapon, and an

arm followed, the weapon aimed at her. She met the eyes of the gun’s owner. His face, devoid of emotion, chilled her. She grabbed for the pitchfork. He leapt forward, knocked the handle from her grasp, and jammed the barrel of the revolver against her neck. “Nay, lassie,” he said in such a reasonable tone, he might have been cautioning her against paying too much

for a scarf at the market. He snaked an arm around her waist and tugged her close while backing away from the stall and from his comrades. The women were at last being led toward the main door, but Charlotte looked over her shoulder and her eyes widened. Kiernan glanced over his shoulder. His attention centered on Phoebe’s assailant as he turned and took a step in their

direction. “You don’t have to do this, lad.” “Dinna’ come any closer,” the man warned. Kiernan halted. A hushed tension hummed through the room. “Where are you taking them?” The man’s chin brushed the back of Phoebe’s head when he motioned toward the women. “What do you hope to accomplish?” Kiernan said.

“You won't get ten feet.” “I will get ten feet and more.” The man pulled Phoebe closer. “Me and my friends.” “Ye tell him, Robbie,” one man yelled before he was silenced by a pistol leveled at his head. “I can't let you take her.” Kiernan took a step left and forward. “You want her dead?” the man demanded.

Kiernan angled his head slightly. “I don't think you want to kill her.” “I’ve done many things I didn't want to do,” Robbie replied. “That’s right, m’lord,” said Alan Hay. “We’ve done many a thing we didn't like. Don't think we won't do so again.” “Aye,” Kiernan agreed, taking another step forward and to his left, “but I don’t

think one of them was murder.” The man’s hold on Phoebe tightened and she wondered if Kieran had miscalculated in assuming the man’s conscience was free of murder. Kiernan took another step forward, and Phoebe’s assailant shifted to the right. “You aren’t like the duchess,” Kiernan said. “She is the one capable of hurting innocents, not you.” When

the man made no reply, Kiernan went on. “It’s a hard line to walk, seeking justice against one so powerful.” “Watch him, Robbie,” Alan called. “You have them right where we want them. Don't be taken in by his soft manner.” “We haven’t a prayer in heaven,” the man said as if he hadn’t heard Alan. “Aye,” Kiernan agreed. “You haven’t a prayer of

committing murder. But justice is another matter.” Robbie laughed bitterly. Alan opened his mouth to say more, but Mather shoved the barrel of his pistol against the man’s temple. Robbie retreated a step. Alan looked at him, and Phoebe read the message conveyed in his eyes: take no prisoners. She shifted her gaze to Kiernan and sent him her own message: be ready. Surprise

flickered across his face and his eyes narrowed in a command to remain still, but she jammed her elbow into the ribs of her captor and shoved the gun barrel pressed against her neck heavenward. No shot rang out as she broke free. Kiernan leapt forward. He caught her, pushed her aside, and lunged for Robbie. Kiernan rammed his fist into Robbie’s jaw. Robbie staggered back, arms

flung out to his sides like a rag doll. Kiernan drove his left fist into the man’s abdomen. He doubled over and the gun jettisoned forward. Kiernan swung again and hit beneath Robbie’s jaw. Phoebe leapt to her feet. “Stop him!” she yelled. No one moved and she realized they had no intention of interfering. Kiernan grabbed Robbie by the collar

and dragged him to his knees. Phoebe stumbled forward, latching onto Kiernan’s arm as it reared back for another blow. The force of his strength dragged her forward and she dangled at his side before his muscle relaxed enough that her feet touched the straw laden floor. He looked at her as if trying to recognize her. “You'll kill him,” she whispered.

“Yes,” he answered just as quietly. “But the pistol wasn't loaded.” Doubt crossed Kiernan’s features. “He intended no harm,” she said. Kiernan’s fingers slowly unclenched as he lowered his arm and looked at Robbie. Utter silence reigned in the stable until Kiernan turned to Phoebe and said, “A simple

request, Heddy. Stay in the stall.” “I didn't leave it.” She released his arm. His lips pursed and he gave a grim shake of his head. “You're splitting hairs.” His gaze abruptly shifted onto the men, “Mather,” he called. “Tie them up.” Then he swung her into his arms. Phoebe cried out and threw her arms around his neck. Kiernan strode through

the stall door and lifted her over the Dutch door through which they had entered and set her down. He vaulted over the door, then grasped her arm and pulled her toward the kitchen door of the inn. Once inside, he paused to open a drawer and rifled through it until he produced a wad of twine. Phoebe’s pulse jumped. “What are you doing?” Kiernan again swept her

off her feet and stalked from the kitchen. "Put me down," she ordered, but he didn't slow his march down the hallway. Phoebe thrashed, but his hold tightened so that she felt as if bands of steel crushed her against stone—stone that smelled of sandalwood and man, and radiated a warmth that brought a rush of heat to her stomach. "Sir," she managed, but only the

powerful thump of his heart answered as he took the stairs two at a time. At her room, he threw open the door, crossed to the bed, and tossed her onto the mattress. She bounced and tried to gain her balance, but Kiernan grabbed her hands. He hesitated, and relief shot through her at the thought he had come to his senses. But he released one hand and snatched a napkin from the

nightstand, then wrapped it around her wrists in one quick motion. “You can't be serious!” she cried, but his gaze remained fixed on winding the twine around her napkinprotected wrists. Phoebe jerked her hands, but Kiernan yanked the knot closed too quickly. “That hurts,” she cried. He made another knot and yanked harder.

“How dare you!” She struggled against the ties. Kiernan responded by winding the two ends of the twine around the bedpost and finishing off with another knot. Phoebe stared, dumbfounded as he stared back, blue eyes startlingly dark, and chest lifting and falling with each heavy breath he took. His gaze dropped to her breasts, inches from his face.

She flushed. "You can't," she began, but he shoved away from her and strode to the door. “In a few minutes, Mather will be outside your door,” he said without looking back, then slammed the door as he left.

Chapter Five Phoebe shifted against the bed pillows and glanced at the mantle clock. Ten minutes before six. Her gaze fell to the low burning embers in the hearth. Morning was upon them and the commotion of the earlier hours had long since died. Yet, as Kiernan MacGregor promised, Mather stood

outside her door. Mather had shown the good sense to untie her before positioning himself as guard. Her first thought had been that Kiernan regretted his rash outburst of temper, but Mather’s, “You ought not to have ignored his commands, Miss,” did away with any notion that his master had enough sense to comprehend his sin. A perfunctory knock sounded on the door, then it

opened and the object of her anger filled the doorway. Phoebe straightened. “My one burning question, Heddy,” he said, closing the door as he stepped inside—she noted Mather no longer stood outside the door —“is why you were following Alan Hay?” “That offense didn't warrant you tying me up as if I was the criminal,” she retorted.

Kiernan snorted. “I would have done far worse if you were a criminal.” He strode to the chair to the right of her bed and sat down. “Answer the question.” “If I answer incorrectly, will you tie me up again?” “I might.” Phoebe forced herself to relax against the pillows and raised a brow. “A simple case of ennui.” He blinked, and Phoebe

feared she had earned another trussing up, then his expression grew speculative. The look abruptly disappeared and he settled into a corner of his chair. He draped an arm over the chair’s back and drawled, “Ennui, you say?” Despite his lazy expression, Phoebe was startled by the decided lack of interest in his voice. “Yes,” she replied.

He gave a single nod. “Your quest for adventure nearly got you killed, my dear.” “It was an exciting adventure,” she rejoined in a bright voice. “Wouldn’t you agree?” “Indeed.” “Indeed,” she emphasized. “I am pleased,” Kiernan said. Phoebe frowned. “What

are you talking about?” “This fine bit of coquettish flirting.” She stiffened. He was right, which made the analysis all the worse. “This isn't an evening ball,” she snapped. “And I am not an earl.” “You could be a merchant—or a farmer—for all I care." Phoebe narrowed her eyes. "Who are you? You keep company with Lord

Stoneleigh, which means you're not lowborn, and the villagers here look to you for leadership. You are no merchant—or a farmer, for that matter." He laughed. "If I was a merchant, would my money be enough for you, or is a title required?" She forced her temper back. "Sir, I understand you believe I am Hester—” He coughed as if to clear

his throat. Phoebe crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “I understand you believe I am Hester and that you're doing your friend a service.” “Heddy.” He leaned forward and reached for the hand she had stuffed beneath her arm. Phoebe stiffened, but he pried the hand free and lifted it to his lips. His mouth against her hand caused her

pulse to jump and warmth spread up her cheeks. His eyes registered curiosity, but he released her hand and reclined in his chair. “Forgive me for laughing,” he said. “I can forgive the mistaken identity—as inconvenient as it is—but tying me up goes beyond the pale.” “I'm pleased to have your forgiveness, regardless of the

reason.” “When this escapade is finished, you will find yourself at a disadvantage.” “Heddy,” he said with resignation, “I find myself at a disadvantage now.” She gave him a dry look. “I doubt that. When do you plan on sending word to the authorities of the murder plot against the duchess—or have you already done so?” “No need to concern

yourself with that.” "But—my God, you don't intend to report them. You will stand idly by while a murder is planned and executed?” “What is one murder in exchange for fifteen thousand?" he replied. "Or do fifteen thousand Highlanders hold less value to you than a single noblewoman?” He paused. "Perhaps, the gratitude of the duchess' male

relatives interests you more?” Phoebe shot to her feet. “Even Heddy wouldn't lower herself to such debased actions.” “Lower herself?” Kiernan laughed, although the sound held none of his characteristic humor. “Heddy, I have seen—” “By heavens," she burst out. "I am not Heddy.” “No?” he murmured. When she gave a frustrated

growl, he rose. “Well then—" He yanked her against him. His mouth crashed down on hers and she froze. One arm slipped around her waist while the other cupped her neck. She gasped, but he hugged her closer. His tongue invaded her mouth, the taste of him, shocking and intoxicating. His arm tightened, but the kiss, the thrust of his tongue, softened to a feathery touch. He

shuddered, and her heart leapt into a furious rhythm. His mouth moved slowly against her lips. She became aware of the hard bulge pressing against her abdomen and clutched at his shoulders. Heat streaked from the unexpected throb in her breasts to her stomach, then lower. He abruptly tore his mouth from hers and buried his face in her neck. Phoebe swayed. His low laugh

washed warm across her ear and she shivered. “You temptress,” he breathed. “I understand what Regan sees in you.” “Just because I borrowed Heddy's coach doesn't mean I am her,” she said through a gulp of air. Kiernan straightened away from her and stared down at her, eyes intense. “I wonder if Regan would believe me if I swore I didn’t

know you're his lover." His gaze slid down her body, and she couldn't find the will to turn away as his eyes lifted again to her face. "You make testing the theory tempting. In fact—" His fingers tightened on her arms and she realized he intended to test the theory that instant. Her head swam. A mental picture rose of Kiernan's large hands on her

naked breasts, his mouth— Phoebe managed the presence of mind to tug free of his grasp. “I-I care nothing for what Lord Stoneleigh believes.” Kiernan tweaked a lock of her hair. “I think you do, sweetheart.” She feared her knees would buckle. By heavens, she had to get away from the man. Despite the shakiness in her legs, Phoebe crossed to

the window and stared out at the road leading to the trees in the distance. “What have you done with the prisoners?” “Prisoners?” The lazy drawl had returned to his voice. Phoebe turned. “You freed them, didn't you?” But he had said as much a moment ago. He'd been in a rage when Robbie threatened to shoot her, then he had let them go. Why? “You have

made yourself a conspirator to an assassination attempt,” she said. “I had hoped Regan would meet us here," he said, "but I can't wait any longer. I must press north. Connor will be here to see you early this morning. If he says you can ride, we'll travel together.” How was she going to escape him and get word to Alistair of the plan to assassinate the duchess?

Phoebe closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “Are you ill, Heddy?” “There's a good chance I will be.” “Shall I fetch the chamber pot?” “Only if you wish me to brain you with it.” She looked at him. “Don't you understand what this means?” “That you are ill, or that you wish to do me bodily harm?”

“Lord Stoneleigh isn't coming—because I am not Hester.” “If that is true, when I return, you and I will get better acquainted.” Her pulse quickened. “It is imperative I return home.” “And I must continue north,” he replied. Why force her to go with him? At this point, his attempt to play cupid was dashed. Had he come to

doubt she was Heddy? Surely he wasn't serious about getting better acquainted? He'd said he'd planned to secure an introduction at Drucilla’s soirée. “What is so pressing that you must return to Edinburgh, Heddy?” She shook her head. “Not Edinburgh, England.” “England, then?” “What awaits you in the north?” she said. “You don't

strike me as a man displaced from his home.” “My home is nowhere near the duchess.” “I see.” Phoebe nodded. “Kidnapping women, stalking robbers in the night, dabbling in murder conspiracies, it is you who suffers a nasty case of ennui.” “But you have solved that problem, my dear,” he replied. “Lord Stoneleigh won't

appreciate you kidnapping me,” she shot back in desperation. By now her uncle must know she was missing. If he was on following her as he had been she’d eloped with Brandon, Kiernan MacGregor was likely to receive a bullet through his heart. “So my money isn't enough, then?” Kiernan said. Phoebe narrowed her eyes. Perhaps he deserved the

bullet. ***** Baron Ty Arlington closed the door to his mother's bedchambers as he entered. She sat on the settee overlooking the small garden in their Carlisle home, and looked up. The smile on her face faltered. He strode to her, his fury barely held in check. "Where is Phoebe, mother?" "W-what? How should I

know?" "She's been missing four days. Don't toy with me. I'll wring your beautiful neck, then make sure your precious Clive hangs for your murder." Her eyes widened. "Ty, I don't know what you mean by Clive—" "I am well aware you've been spreading your legs for him these last three months," Ty snarled. "Unlike your husband, I am no fool. What

did you do with my cousin?" "We—I—did it for you," she sobbed Blood roared through his ears. "Did what?" "You know she won't marry you," his mother rushed on. "We must gain control of her inheritance. If she is dead—" Ty seized his mother's arm and dragged her to within an inch of his face. "If she dies before I marry her, we

won't get a damned thing. There's a stipulation in her mother's will that if Phoebe dies before marrying, her money goes to a distant cousin." His mother gasped. "That's right," he said. "Lady Wallington didn't trust us." "Us? But we never hurt her." "Only because she had the good grace to die of a

fever first." He gave his mother a violent shake that jarred dark curls loose from their pins. "What did you do?" "Phoebe isn't dead," she got out between sobs, then began to cry harder. Rage flashed in a blinding light through his brain before her words penetrated. Ty shoved her back onto the couch and she fumbled in her pocket for a

handkerchief. He pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and shoved it in front of her face. She hesitated. "Take it," he ordered. She took the handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. "You can be so cruel," she said through a dramatic hiccup. "Like mother like son." Her head snapped up and her eyes locked onto his. "Where is she?" he

demanded. "I don't know. Clive said there were two men with her who protected her from him and his men." "His men? Bloody hell, do you realize I could hang if he tells a single soul what I have planned?" "Clive would never tell anyone." "He's a damned coachman. Once he tires of fucking you, he'll find a

wealthier woman who's just as bored as you are." "Ty." Ty sat down beside her. "Listen carefully, you are to leave Phoebe to me." "Clive can help." "No one can help. Now calm yourself. If your husband sees you, he'll demand to know why you've been crying.” “He would take it for a touch of melancholia.”

Ty gave a disgusted snort. “Twelve years of marriage and he doesn't know you at all.” "He sees what he wants to see." There was a rap on the door, then it opened and a young maid entered, a tray of tea in hand. She stopped. "Forgive me, my lady." She gave a small curtsy. "I didn't realize you had company." "Never mind," Ty said.

"Bring the tray." The girl cast a nervous glance at Lady Albery, but did as instructed. She set the tray on the sideboard. Ty rose and approached as she poured the second cup. She paused and looked up at him. “M-m’lord?” she asked in a whisper. Ty placed a hand over her fingers, steadying her as she finished filling the cup. "No need to be afraid,” he

said softly. “Y-yes, m’lord,” the maid stammered, then set the pot down and made a hasty exit. “Really, Ty,” his mother said once they were alone again, “must you have every maid that passes through these doors?” Ty carried the two cups of tea to the table in front of the settee, and sat down beside her. "Don't meddle in

any of my affairs—especially Phoebe. Do you understand?" "Surely you can find a better prospect than her?" “Few heiresses are willing to wed a mere baron,” he replied. "And even if I were to find an heiress, few can boast fifteen thousand pounds a year.” And even fewer had no one left in the world to protect them. *****

Two towers came into view atop the mountainside to the west. Cool morning air rippled across Phoebe's cloak, tickling her arms. She cast a furtive glance at Kiernan MacGregor. He rode to her left with Mather to her right. Kiernan sat straight in the saddle, his body moving in a fluid motion with the horse, which gave testament to the countless hours he must have spent riding.

A tremor rippled through her. The memory of his kiss rose to the surface as it had a hundred times in the three hours since they'd left the inn. Kiernan wasn't the first man she'd kissed, but he was the first highwayman she'd kissed and—her stomach twisted— the first man she'd suspected of being a traitor. That, however, didn't stop her heart from fluttering with the memory.

For the thousandth time, she cursed her curiosity. Had she stayed in bed last night instead of following Alan Hay, she would halfway back to Edinburgh, where she could warn Alistair of the plan to assassinate the duchess. She would also be far away from Kiernan MacGregor. Though had she not followed Alan Hay, she wouldn’t know about his plan. Either way, her fate had

been sealed the moment Kiernan MacGregor appeared in her coach doorway…or perhaps it was his fate that had been sealed. Her attention snagged on the way his trousers hugged his muscled thigh. Phoebe snapped her attention forward. “Is something wrong, Heddy?” She shifted her gaze to him. He was regarding her. “I

didn't think to bring a chamber pot with me.” She scowled. “I have no use for a chamber pot here.” Mischief lit his eyes. “Not even to brain me with?” The brute was enjoying himself far too much. She turned her gaze to the castle, now in full view as they crested the hill. “Do you like it?” he asked. Phoebe noted the dozen

armed men arrayed along the battlements. “This is the nineteenth century, why so many guards?” Kiernan motioned with his head to the forest that surrounded them. “This is untamed country, far beyond the reach of traditional law. The nineteenth century won’t ride to our rescue any quicker than the Queen's men will.” She pointed past Mather to the sparkling lake that

stretched out in the valley to the east. “What lake is that?” “Loch Katrine.” "It's beautiful," she said. They lapsed into silence. As they rode through the castle gate, three ruddy-faced children shot across the courtyard. Three women walking toward the castle slowed, their attention on Phoebe. She gave a cordial nod and they continued on. No one looked thin or

underfed. What shielded these people from the catastrophe that had devastated Alan Hay and his people? They halted and Mather dismounted. Kiernan slid from the saddle and tossed his reins to Mather. “If you would, Mather,” he said, and came around her horse. Mather cast her a nervous glance that reminded Phoebe of when she'd told

him she wanted help in writing a letter to Kiernan's father. Surely the rogue's father couldn’t be at the castle? Kiernan halted beside her and she looked down at him. “When will I meet your father?” He grinned. “He isn't here.” Of course not. The kidnapper wasn’t about to be so easily caught. “Where is

he?” “In the south.” Kiernan clasped her waist and lifted her from the horse. He set her down so close that she caught the familiar scent of sandalwood. His gaze dropped. “That’s a fine dress you’re wearing, Heddy.” Phoebe looked down to find her breasts nearly spilling over her bodice. She scowled and pulled her cloak

more closely about her. "I would have preferred my own dress." "I think that one suits you just fine.” She was sure he did think that. In fact, she had a suspicion he was responsible for the fact that the seamstress hadn't been able to finish her gown before they left. He released her and turned to a man who had

stopped behind him. "Johnson, how are you?” “Well enough.” Johnson nodded. “Daniel wants to see ye.” “Where is he?” “The library. Harris is training the new steward and had business with Daniel.” “Excellent.” Kiernan turned back to Phoebe. “Shall we?” He offered an arm. Phoebe rolled her eyes and started toward the castle

without taking the proffered arm. “How long do you plan on keeping me prisoner?” she asked. Kiernan fell into step alongside her. “Are you so anxious to be rid of me?” “Beware your choice of words, sir.” He laughed. “I sent word to Regan. I expect he'll be here soon.” “Don't you find it odd he hasn't yet arrived? Has it

occurred to you I might be telling the truth?” “It's my guess that my original message didn't reach him.” Kiernan gave her a serious look. “He is likely frantic with worry. You are, after all, missing.” Phoebe looked sharply at him. They had reached a side door of the castle and Kiernan opened it. “After you,” he said, waving her through.

She stepped inside and found herself in a large eating hall. Phoebe stood, transfixed by the variety of weapons mounted along the length of the wall on the far side of the room. “An arsenal,” she breathed. “Not quite,” Kiernan said. “Just a few relics we’ve collected over the years.” Phoebe recalled her father's mention of Arthur

Thistlewood’s claim that he could amass fifteen thousand armed men within half an hour. The weapons that covered the wall in front of her were a far cry from fifteen thousand, but if Kiernan MacGregor flouted this small arsenal to the world, how many more weapons had he hidden in the bowels of this castle? Who was Kiernan MacGregor, and why hadn't she heard of so powerful a

man? But he'd given her the answer; Brahan Seer was far beyond the reach of traditional law. “Come along.” Kiernan cupped her elbow and led her toward the kitchen. They stepped through the doorway into the busy room and a woman Phoebe guessed to be in her seventies looked up from a table in the middle of the room where she sat shelling peas.

“So, ye decided to grace us with your presence?” she said in voice clear for a woman of her advanced years. “Aye, m’lady.” Kiernan swept a low bow. “I have returned to the nest.” “Who's that with you?” He winked at Phoebe. “A friend of Regan’s.” “Does she have a name or is she like the others?” Phoebe shot him a

questioning look—though she well knew what the others must have been like. Lord Stoneleigh was a well-known rake. Kiernan shrugged and said, “No, Winnie, she is nothing like the others.” “Well,” Winnie said, “what is it?” “What is what?” he asked. The old woman gave him an exasperated look and

Phoebe had the distinct impression her own frustrating experience with this man wasn't unique. “Her name,” Winnie said. “What is it?” “My apologies,” he said. “Hester Ballingham, may I present Winnie MacGregor.” Phoebe angled her head. “A pleasure to meet you, ma’am. Allow me to make a proper introduction. My name is Phoebe Wallington.”

Winnie studied her for a moment, then looked questioningly at Kiernan. “I told you she wasn't like the others.” Before Phoebe could respond, he said to Winnie, “Heddy will be staying with us until Regan arrives." "Sally," Winnie called, and a woman kneading bread at the counter turned and wiped her hands as she approached.

"We have a guest," Winnie said when the woman stopped beside her. "See to the guest room on the second floor." The woman looked at Phoebe. "Would you like a bath, my lady?" "I would, indeed," Phoebe said, "and Phoebe will do. I am no lady." She cast him a Kiernan a glance, but he stared at the peas Winnie was shelling, his

expression akin to that of a man who had struck gold.

Chapter Six

Phoebe startled awake to the sound of footsteps running past her bedchamber door. She threw back the covers and jumped to her feet, reaching the door in three paces. She yanked it open in time to see two women, arms laden with blankets, disappear down the

corridor. Phoebe dressed and hurried to the great hall. The room was filled with women racing in with more blankets and tossing them onto an already full table. She dodged a young girl who dashed up the stairs, then headed toward a woman who was pulling blankets from the table and piling them into the arms of another woman. “What's happened?” Phoebe demanded.

“A fire in the village,” the woman replied tersely. “My God,” Phoebe exclaimed as the woman with the blankets whirled and headed for the postern door. “Is anyone injured?” “Two men and a child, but Winnie is tending them.” “The blankets,” Phoebe said, “they are for the fire?” “Aye.” “I’ll help." “Take these blankets to

the village.” The woman grabbed several blankets and shoved them into Phoebe's arms as three other women scooped up armfuls. “Go with them.” She waved Phoebe toward the women who were already hurrying toward the door. The instant she stepped outside, Phoebe gasped at sight of the red glow in the sky. Thick, dark billows of smoke trailed a haze across

the moon. She kept pace with the women across the courtyard. Even before they reached the gate, the smell of smoke assaulted her nostrils and the shouts of men filled her ears. The women hurried through the gate and down the hill at a near run. Phoebe's heart pounded harder at sight of the bucket brigade that led from the well in the middle of the square to the two burning cottages sixty feet away.

She followed closely behind the women as they neared the bottom of the hill. Another pail of water was thrown on the burning cottage to the left and she shuddered at the hiss of the water over the flames. She stayed with the other women as they pushed past the old women and children who watched in stunned silence. Men dunked blankets in a tub of water beside the well, then raced

along the muddy trail created by the dripping blankets to a cottage adjacent to the burning cottage. A child shrieked, and Phoebe's heart jumped into her throat as a flame leapt in a furious gust from the cottage on the left to its neighbor. Small patches of red glowed in the thatched roof of the endangered cottage. She hurried forward and dropped her blankets onto the others

piled beside the tub. A man pulling water from the well hauled up another bucket. Sweat glistened on his forehead as he handed the bucket off to his companion. The man throwing water directly onto the first cottage hurled another bucket of water onto the inferno. Nothing more than a drop on hell’s flames, she thought. The man turned in her direction.

Kiernan MacGregor. He yelled something to the man next to him—Mather —then snatched the bucket Mather held and threw the water high onto the roof of the cottage with the highest blaze. Searing smoke blasted across him. Phoebe stepped forward, but was forced back by a man who shoved past her to grab a blanket. He gave it a quick dousing, then raced to the cottage. The man

pulling buckets of water from the well dumped more water into the tub. He shot her a questioning look and Phoebe dropped to her knees in the mud beside the tub. She grabbed the top blanket and dunked it elbow deep in the water, then barely lifted it to have it snatched from her by another man. She doused blanket after blanket, and handed them to men until her arms ached. At last, the pile

of blankets had been exhausted. For the first time since she’d begun the task, Phoebe looked up and saw the fire had diminished significantly. She looked back at the ground. No more blankets. They needed more. She jumped to her feet and dodged through the maze of people, only stopping when she found an open door several lanes down. She

hurried inside. A woman, ransacking a large chest at the foot of the bed, looked up in surprise. “What have you got?” Phoebe demanded. “Take that.” The woman pointed to two heavy blankets on the bed. Phoebe scooped them up, then dashed for the door. When she dropped the blankets at the well, the man who had just dunked a

blanket in the tub of water thrust it into her arms. She ran to the cottage and dumped the wet tartan into the arms of the nearest man. She turned and started back into the village, but slipped. Sharp pain lanced through one knee. She gritted her teeth against the tears that sprang to her eyes and started to push to her feet. A strong hand gripped her arm and yanked her upright. She

looked at the man as he released her, then he seized the bucket his companion shoved into his view. Phoebe backed away and, once clear of the bucketline men, halted and rubbed her knee. She felt something slick on her wet dress and sniffed her fingers. Animal oil. She looked at the blaze. Smoke still rose in dark clouds from the flames. Heavy clouds, like those thick

with the sort of oil meant for a lantern. A woman sped past, nearly colliding with her. Phoebe whirled and hurried back through the village. An hour later, she stepped from the cottage of a young girl who had given her two linen sheets. The girl had seen her passing by with the single blanket she had found and insisted she take the sheets, but the men had finally reduced the fire to a

smolder, and Phoebe felt certain it wouldn't be necessary to burn such lovely hand-made sheets. Phoebe headed for the square, but slowed at sight of a figure sprinting between cottages. She hesitated, exhaustion warring with the impression that the man was purposely keeping in the shadows to avoid detection. She recalled the oil she'd slipped in. Her knee still ached. Phoebe

glanced down the deserted lane. All the villagers had gathered at the fire, so who would be skulking through the deserted lanes? She tucked the blanket and sheets under her arm and crept along the front of the cottage until she could peer around the edge. The moon shone dimly through thin clouds, lighting the empty lane. A tiny splash drew her attention farther down the narrow road.

Phoebe crept forward between the cottages. She caught sight of trees and realized this row of cottages butted up against the forest. She stopped and cautiously looked around the cottage to her right. The figure hurried away from her toward the trees. She slipped around the cottage after him. He made an abrupt right turn as if heading back toward the lane. Phoebe halted. Maybe he simply took

a short cut. She started at the unexpected bark of a dog, then whirled at a rustling in the trees. ***** “Kiernan.” Kiernan drew back after tossing up another bucket of water onto the smoldering ash to find Munro MacGregor looking anxiously at him. “If you have come to tell me Brahan Seer is ablaze, you can go to the devil,” Kiernan

said. Munro shook his head. “No. It's the Englishwoman.” “Heddy?” Kiernan thrust the bucket into Mather’s hands and stepped clear of the bucket line. “Aye,” Munro said. “Rebecca says her dog, Surry, chased her.” “What's she doing in the village? Where's Rebecca?” he demanded before Munro could answer.

Munro pointed to Rebecca, who stood in the forefront of the crowd of onlookers. Kiernan strode to her. “What's this about the Englishwoman?” “We were coming from the north end of the village,” Rebecca replied, “when Surry barked and ran between the cottages. I chased him and spotted her running into the woods.”

“Damnation,” Kiernan cursed. “You're sure it was her?” “Aye,” Rebecca replied. “Ye can't miss that hair.” “No, you can't. Mather,” Kiernan yelled, then said to Rebecca. "Show me where you saw her." Mather appeared at Kiernan’s side. “You called, sir?” “Yes. Mather, seems our work is not yet finished.

Moments later, Kiernan spotted a boot print where Heddy had jumped a puddle, then frowned, upon noting another much larger boot print in the mud inches from hers. A dog’s growl jerked his attention to the trees. He lunged forward in tandem with a woman’s muffled cry. An instant later, he and Mather crashed through the trees as Heddy shouted, “Take a large bite of him,

lad!” The dog snarled and a man’s curse followed. The dog gave a sudden highpitched yelp. Kiernan squinted in a frantic effort to pierce the darker shadows of the trees. “Bastard!” Heddy shouted in a breathless voice. “Heddy!” Kiernan yelled. Boots pounded away from them, headed deeper into the forest.

“MacGregor!" Kiernan veered left, toward her shout and spotted her slim figure amongst the trees. She shifted as though to run. “Heddy!” he shouted. “Stay put!” She whirled toward him. A moment later, Kiernan arrived at her side. He grabbed her shoulders. “What in God’s name is going on?” “A man,” she said in a rush, pointing deeper into the

forest, “he went that way.” “Mather,” Kiernan said, and Mather rushed forward in pursuit of the man as Kiernan began dragging Heddy from the forest. “Sir!” she exclaimed. “You’re hurting me.” “Nothing compared to what I plan to do.” Once they stepped from the trees, Kiernan yanked her around to face him. “What the hell were you doing in the forest?”

She frowned. “The forest —you think I was trying to escape? By heavens, if I wanted to escape, I wouldn't waste time helping with the fire and I certainly would not go on foot.” “Then what were you doing?” Kiernan demanded. “Who was the man?” “I don’t know. I saw someone behaving oddly and went to investigate. I believe I startled him.”

“Startled him? What do you mean? Did he harm you?” “I am well, sir,” she said. “There's no need for hysterics.” There was a rustling and Kiernan looked up as Mather emerged from the forest, Surry, Rebecca's Border Collie, in his arms. The dog thumped his tail against Mather’s arm. "What's wrong, is he

hurt?" Heddy demanded. “Looks as though he’s hurt his leg.” Mather stopped beside them. "Nothing serious." Heddy stroked. “Well, done, lad.” She looked at Mather. “You're sure he will recover?” “I caught up with him limping through the forest.” Mather smiled fondly at the dog. “He wasn't about to give up the chase.”

“And the man?” Kiernan demanded. “Horace and Thomas heard the cries and came running. I instructed them to continue looking, but I fear we lost them.” “Them?” Mather nodded. “I believe there were two.” Kiernan swung his gaze onto Heddy. “You said there was only one.” “I encountered only

one.” “Only one? When this mess is sorted out, you will pay the piper. That is me, madam, in case you think otherwise.” Her mouth dropped open in genuine surprise. “I have done nothing wrong.” “Just as you did nothing wrong the night you followed Alan Hay?” “I don't owe you an explanation for my actions,”

she retorted. “No matter how foolhardy the actions?” “I would think men skulking about on the night of an arson would be of greater interest to you than what I was doing in the forest,” she replied. Kiernan stilled. “Arson?” “Are you saying you didn't notice anything strange about the fire?” “I notice many things,

Heddy, many things, indeed.” ***** “You changed your dress.” Kiernan squinted against the morning sunlight at Heddy, who walked alongside him on the path to the village. She glanced down at the bodice that covered her full breasts. “Yes. Winnie noticed my dilemma.” Her dilemma was turning into a distraction he was

having a devil of a time ignoring. He returned his gaze to the path, using the stick he’d picked up on the trail like a cane. “I shall miss your, er, shawl.” “You may have it, sir, if it means that much to you.” He would have that, and more. After a moment, he said, “We found no trace of your attackers.” "Not attackers, sir. I encountered only one man,

and he did not attack me." Kiernan looked at her. "No?" "As I told you last night, it seemed more that I surprised him." "Heddy, there isn't a man in this village who would accost a woman—or attack her—because he was surprised." Phoebe nodded. "I know. If he was at all familiar, my description would have

jogged your memory, I'm sure. Who do you think they were?" "What of the man you thought hired the men who tried to kidnap you the night —" "The night you kidnapped me?" she cut in. Kiernan canted his head. "The night I kidnapped you. Adam, I believe was his name?" "Adam couldn't possibly

know I am here," she said. "Not to mention, he wouldn't associate with violent men." "He tried to kidnap you." "Many men have attempted to woo a lady by abducting her to Gretna Green." Before Kiernan could reply, she added, "I assure you, sir, Adam would never set a fire to a home for any reason." "You believe the men who fled are connected with

the fire?" Kiernan demanded. "You said nothing of this last night." "There's always the chance the fire was an accident, but there is no mistaking the animal oil I slipped in. Did you find the oil as I said?" "I did." Just as he found papers on his father's desk in the library in disarray, which wasn't how he'd left them earlier that night.

They reached the bottom of the hill and a passing villager nodded to Kiernan. “Hugh.” He returned the nod and continued toward the burned homes. They entered the square and Heddy halted. “Good God.” “Terrible sight, isn’t it?” Kiernan stared at what remained of the two cottages. The first cottage had burned nearly to the ground,

while the back wall of the second cottage and stone chimney was all that remained of that building. He strode to the cottage on the left and stepped through what used to be the doorway, then dug the stick into the ashes and began shifting through them. “Be careful, sir,” Heddy called. “Coals are sure to still burn in spots.” “Yes.”

Nothing but ash turned up in his search and he went to the second cottage. The doorframe stood waist high, and he stepped carefully over the threshold. He shuffled throughout the cottage, stopping to turn a board over with his boot or prod at the ash with his stick. After several moments, Heddy said, “Does anything of interest remain?” Kiernan turned and met

her gaze. “What of interest could remain? Perhaps the coverlet that Evvana’s greatgreat grandmother made? Or the new pair of boots Logan’s brother sent him for his birthday?” “Any of those things would be of interest.” Her eyes softened. “The girl was not badly hurt in the fire.” “So Winnie says,” he said, and began picking his way to the far corner.

“How many tenants live on your land?” Heddy asked. “It isn't my land.” “How many tenants on your father’s land, then?” Kiernan’s stick hit something solid. He pushed aside more ash until the remains of a glass lamp became visible. “Heddy, come have a look at this.” She started forward. Her skirts swished and Kiernan jerked his head

around. “No. I forgot your skirts. It's too dangerous to walk through the cinders.” He stuck the stick through the handle of the lamp and lifted it carefully. She stepped back as he carried it over the threshold. He squatted and set the lamp on the ground at her feet. Heddy followed suit and studied it for a moment. “The glass is still in tact. Had the lamp been the cause of the

fire, it would have fallen over. Why didn't it break?” Kiernan tipped the lamp slightly to one side. “Good question.” “Are you, by chance, involved in a feud?” He looked up to find her studying him. “We're not at war,” he replied. “I only thought…” “Thought what?” “If you are helping tenants evicted by the

duchess…” Kiernan came to his feet, pulling her up with him. “Be careful, Miss Ballingham. Such accusations are dangerous. The duchess wouldn't take kindly to being accused of arson.” “I didn't accuse her.” “Who then?” Heddy shook her head. “I'm not accusing anyone. It's just that such associations—” “What associations?”

“Associations such as Alan Hay.” “Do not meddle in things you know nothing of. That's just as dangerous as throwing allegations at someone as powerful as the Duchess of Sutherland.” “For whom?” “The person making them.” Kiernan looked around, searching the men milling throughout the square. “Nelson,” he called.

“Come here, if you please.” When Nelson reached them, Kiernan said, “Be so kind as to see Miss Ballingham back to Brahan Seer.” He turned to her. “I'm going north. I won't be back for at least two days. This is goodbye, Heddy.” "Goodbye?" "I expect Regan will fetch you before I return." Her lips pursed. Ah, so she didn't regret seeing him go at all. "You're

not still angry with him?" he asked. She sighed. “I can make the short walk to the castle myself. No need for your man to accompany me.” “I wager you can, but I prefer you not wander about alone.” Her brows lifted in polite inquiry. “You remember my mention of the piper?” he asked.

Her regard remained detached. “Once you're gone, what is to stop me from leaving?” “Good sense, I would hope. If you should decide to leave, I suggest you don't stop. I am known as a relentless hunter.” With that, he strode away. ***** Phoebe had consulted the maps in the MacGregor library immediately after

Kiernan left that morning and, as Alan Hay had said, the duchess' land was far to the north. Earlier, on her way to the kitchen, she had calculated their journey. They wouldn't reach her anytime soon, especially on foot. But by the time Phoebe reached London and Lord Briarden dispatched someone to warn the duchess, it could be too late. Her best choice was to slip away from Brahan Seer

and ride as fast as she could for London. Kiernan had been gone several hours now, long enough for her to have a head start that would ensure he didn't catch her. From the corner of her eye, Phoebe caught sight of a tall figure that filled the kitchen doorway. She shot to her feet, toppling her chair. “Lord Stoneleigh.” “Phoebe,” he said.

At his one word, the bustle in the kitchen ceased. Phoebe didn’t have to glance at Winnie to confirm her intense gaze. Phoebe groaned inwardly as the earl made his way past the women who stared at him with unabashed curiosity. He reached for Phoebe’s hand. “Why so formal, my dear, we're old friends, aren’t we?” His brown eyes held hers as he pressed a kiss to

the tips of her fingers. Releasing her, he looked at Winnie. “Winnie, you grow lovelier each time I see you.” “Off with you, you scoundrel.” She waved him away and turned her attention to the batter she’d been stirring. Phoebe wasn’t taken in by the old housekeeper’s casual manner, but faced the earl when he said to her, “I take it you’ve had a bit of an

adventure?” “That is one way of putting it, my lord.” He grinned. “That bad?” “It has been… interesting.” “Kiernan does have a way of livening things up.” The activity in the kitchen resumed at a slow pace. Phoebe inclined her head and murmured, “Again, my lord, aptly put.”

He burst out laughing and she groaned inwardly when the women stopped work altogether. “Forgive me,” the earl said. “This is my doing. I received Kiernan’s note the day after the ball. I assumed he would realize his mistake, and gave it no further thought.” “Don't blame yourself. He was the one, after all, who…detained me. How did

you discover the truth?” she asked, but added before he could reply, “My uncle, has he raised a fuss?” “Not to my knowledge. It was the letter from Kiernan asking why I hadn't come to Brahan Seer that told me of my error. It wasn’t until the ride here that I began to sort things out. Please, my dear —" his lip twitched"—I—" His body shook with silent laughter, and Phoebe

scowled. “I know,” he said. “Abominable of me.” He wiped an eye with a forefinger. “But the look you must have had on your face when you found yourself in the clutches of the Marquess of Ashlund." Phoebe gasped, and his sputters of laughter abruptly ended. “What is it— Lord.” His eyes widened with even more hilarity. “Don't tell me you didn’t know?”

“I did not.” She recalled the shout she'd heard when the men had burst in upon Alan Hay and his men. “Lay down your weapons in the name of the Marquess of Ashlund!” She groaned and reached for the chair, then remembered it lay on the floor. “By heavens, when it becomes known the Marquess of Ashlund held me against my will—”

“Against your will?” Winnie interjected. “You can leave any time you like.” “He brought me here against my wishes,” Phoebe replied coldly. “The fact that he thought I was Heddy won't signify in the eyes of polite society—my God, what a mess.” Winnie pinned Phoebe with an impatient stare. “Does anyone in England have to know what

happened?” "Good question,” Lord Stoneleigh said. "Since your family hasn't sounded the alarm, we may yet avoid a scandal." "I'm at a loss to understand why my uncle hasn't created a fuss." "I can't say," the earl replied. "But I heard nothing, so perhaps no one in England knows." “Everyone here knows.”

She waved her hand, indicating her surroundings. “You needn't worry about anyone at Brahan Seer,” Winnie said. “We don't associate with English gentry.” “There are those at the inn,” Phoebe said. “The Glaistig Uain?” he asked. When she nodded, he said, “Is it possible to say you were visiting someone?” “I don't know. I can't

understand why my uncle hasn't searched for me.” “I wish Kiernan hadn't left," he said. “Oh, Phoebe,” he added with genuine feeling, “this is my fault. Had I not complained to Kiernan…” “You couldn't know that His Lordship would concoct such a ridiculous scheme. He should clear up the mess, but that is impossible.” “True,” Lord Stoneleigh

agreed. “Even if he were here, he's the last person you want to be associated with you, at this point.” “Sir,” Phoebe said, “you have no idea.” ***** Lord Briarden had long ago instructed her to be a lady of society. What would he think once he knew that by obeying his orders, she'd gotten herself mistaken for Lord Stoneleigh's mistress,

then whisked off to the Scottish Highlands? "You're sure you want to leave today?" Lord Stoneleigh asked as they walked along the village lane on their way to the stables. Phoebe nodded. "I know we'll only make the Green Lady Inn, but I am anxious to reach London as soon as possible. If there is any chance I can head off a scandal, I must try."

"Of course," he said. "And once we reach the inn, I'll procure a maid to travel with us the rest of the way. It wouldn't do to escape one scandal only to be foisted by our innocent trip home." "Thank you, my lord. I am deeply grateful." They rounded the corner and the burnt cottages came into view. "Good God." He stopped. "It's beyond

comprehension, isn't it?” she asked. They started forward again. “What started the fire?” He lifted his hand to shield his eyes against the afternoon sun. “I don't know. I'm sure His Lordship will insist upon a full investigation. “Aye,” came a deep voice from behind them, “that he will." Phoebe turned to see a

man, Kiernan's height, with the same striking build, striding toward them. “Your Grace.” Lord Stoneleigh affected a bow. “Regan,” he replied. Phoebe’s mouth dropped open as His Grace, the Duke of Ashlund, shifted his attention onto her. “You’re his father,” she breathed. “If by 'his father' you mean, the father of Kiernan MacGregor, aye, lass, I am.”

Phoebe reddened. “Forgive me, Your Grace.” She lowered into a deep curtsy. “I-it is just that I—" She rose. “Forgive me, Your Grace, I have had a trying day.” “So I see.” He turned to survey the cottages. “I was under the impression my son had some idea what happened.” “He sent word informing you of the fire?” she asked.

“Aye.” The duke strode to the cottage Lord Stoneleigh stood nearest. “This would have been Evvana and Logan’s cottage. Where are they staying?” “Winnie made space for them in the castle. The couple who live in the other cottage is away.” “In Graham country, visiting her family,” the duke said. He went to the other

cottage and stepped across the threshold with the same care Kiernan had demonstrated. His gaze moved along the ruins. “There is nothing to salvage here. Work on a new cottage will begin immediately.” He turned. “But that will be tomorrow. The day is nearly done. Shall I escort you back to Brahan Seer?” Phoebe cast a glance at Lord Stoneleigh, then said to

the duke, “We were leaving, Your Grace. I must return to England right away.” "Surely you can spare an hour?" "As you can see, it's growing late. We had hoped to reach the Green Lady Inn before dark." "I spoke with Winnie, lass." A shock reverberated through Phoebe. Winnie had informed the duke of his

son’s indiscretion. “Marcus,” interrupted a passing villager. “‘Tis been a season since we’ve seen you.” “Aye,” he replied. “Too long. The twins keep Elise busy. She sends her regards.” “Those rascals, eh?” The man beamed. “Are they giving you trouble?” “Not nearly so much as my eldest son, I suspect.” Phoebe choked back a

groan. “What has the rogue done?” the man inquired with a grin. “That,” the duke said, “is what the lass, here, is about to explain. Would you excuse us, Wallace?” “Aye, Marcus. We will see you later?” The duke clasped his arm. “You will,” he said, and looked at her. "Shall we?" Phoebe nodded and she

and Lord Stoneleigh fell into step alongside him. “Would you mind beginning with your name?" the duke asked. “Phoebe Wallington.” She startled when his head snapped in her direction. “Wallington?" he repeated. "Yes, my uncle is Charles Wallington, Viscount Albery. Do you know him?” He shook his head. "Nay. I knew a Wallington, a man

in Inverness. I'm pleased you're not related to him." Her heart suddenly pounded. "May I ask why, Your Grace?" "The man was a coldblooded killer." Before she could digest his answer, he said, “Why is Viscount Albery's niece visiting Brahan Seer?” She dropped her gaze, and he added, “Is it so bad that you fear telling me, Miss Wallington?”

“Your Grace, I ask that you leave the matter between me and your son.” He looked at Lord Stoneleigh as they started up the hill. “Have you anything to say, Regan?” “As the lady, says, Your Grace, this is between her and Lord Ashlund.” “I can always ask Winnie.” Phoebe inhaled sharply. “You don't strike me as

the sort of young woman who traipses about the country with men.” “I assure you, I am not.” “Good. So, when we arrive at Brahan Seer, I expect you both to go directly to my library. I will ask Winnie to join us.” “Your Grace,” Phoebe said, “I beg you, leave the matter.” “He's my son. I cannot.” Phoebe steadied her

breathing. “No need to ask Winnie to join us. She knows very little of the matter.” “A heartening thought,” he replied as they crested the hill.

Chapter Seven

Four days travel had tired Kiernan. He entered Brahan Seer’s great hall desiring nothing more than a good meal and several scotches. He made his way through the crowd gathered for the evening meal. The last three men who stood between him and the table stepped aside

and Kiernan halted upon seeing his father seated at the head of the table. He noticed Heddy sitting on his father’s left and frowned. “Evening, Kiernan,” the duke said. “Father,” he replied, and started forward. His father raised a brow just as a hand clasped Kiernan's shoulder from behind. “Well, now,” came the

voice of Regan Langley. Kiernan faced his friend. An odd light played in Regan’s eyes and Kiernan looked back at his father. “What's wrong?” The duke only stared at him. “Damnation, Father, what is it? Is something amiss with the twins—Elise?” "Nay. She and the children are well." "Heddy,” Kiernan turned

to her, “I expected you and Regan to be gone. Are you ill? For God’s sake, someone tell me what's wrong.” “What's wrong is that you are addressing the lady by the wrong name,” his father said. Kiernan’s frown deepened. “What?” “Her name—Phoebe Wallington.” Kiernan yanked his attention back to her. The low

drone of voices in the hall, the clatter of pans in the kitchen, all faded into the background of a silence that hung between the four of them. “Good God,” he whispered. “Not quite my reaction,” his father said. “But considering the lady's presence, it will do.” “Father,” Kiernan began, but halted at the warning look

on his face and turned again to Phoebe. “Heddy—” “Phoebe,” the duke cut in sharply. Kiernan nodded. “Phoebe —Miss Wallington, I had no idea.” “Nay?” his father demanded. “Miss Wallington informed me she revealed her identity the night you abducted her. You are saying it's not true?” “It's true.”

“Then do not compound your wrongs by lying.” “I'm sorry.” “‘Tis not me you should apologize to.” His father cocked his head in Phoebe’s direction. Kiernan turned to her. “Miss Wallington, I am sorry.” "That's all?” the duke demanded. "I will, of course, make it right. I'll have an

announcement immediately sent—" "No," she interrupted. “As I told your father, things aren't as bad as they appear." “What?” Kiernan stared. “Lord Stoneleigh assures me my uncle hasn't acknowledged my disappearance. I have already sent word that I am well and visiting friends in the north.” “The devil you say?” Kiernan looked at Regan,

who gave a nod of confirmation, then turned back to Phoebe. “You said he would move heaven and hell for you.” Her lips tightened. “Sir, I would not look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm offering you a way out.” “Offering me a way out? Madam, honor dictates there is no way out.” “My freedom for your honor?”

“I would think it would be your honor, as well." He shook his head in frustration. "I'm sorry. Get whatever notion you have of avoiding a scandal out of your head. You have no choice.” Her eyes blazed and she faced his father. “Your Grace, I remain firm in my resolution. I will not marry your son. This is Scotland, and women here have the right to refuse any offer, no

matter how fantastic it may be.” “But you aren't Scottish,” he replied. “We are in Scotland, therefore, Scottish law prevails.” “But your uncle is English, and he will demand you marry.” “Think of the life you sentence me to,” she begged. “You force me into a marriage that neither of us

wants.” Doubt flickered in his father’s eyes and Kiernan burst out, “Heddy, bloody hell!” The din of the room quieted. “Kiernan,” the duke admonished in a low voice. Kiernan gave the men nearest him a glare that sent them about their business, then he stepped closer to Phoebe. He placed a hand on

the back of her chair and said in a low voice, “Forgive me, Phoebe, but you mistake my surprise for reluctance.” She rolled her eyes. “Don't act as though you are a willing groom.” He scowled. “You know I want you.” She gasped. Regan cleared his throat, and his father sighed. “Don't pretend you have no idea what I'm talking

about,” Kiernan muttered. “Miss Wallington,” his father cut in, “you said my son didn't force his attentions on you.” “Of course, I didn’t,” Kiernan retorted. But he'd come damned close, truth be told. “You said he was a perfect gentleman.” “I knew, er, thought she was Regan’s.” He looked at Regan and shrugged. “That

didn’t stop me from—” “Sir.” Phoebe shot to her feet and shoved at her chair with the back of her leg, but it didn’t slide and she nearly fell back into the seat. Kiernan and his father reached for her. She slapped at them, then her eyes widened on the duke. “Your Grace,” she whispered, then added under her breath, “By heavens.” "Phoebe,” Kiernan said,

then, “love.” “Oh no, you don’t.” This time she managed to shove the chair aside. “I am not some schoolgirl who will swoon with your charm.” She started to turn, but whipped back around and poked her finger in Kiernan’s chest, causing him to jerk back with every jab of her forefinger. “I am not your love. I wasn’t your love before, and I— ohhh—” her blazing eyes

turned on his father “—and I am not your—your— anything.” She stalked to the far side of the room and disappeared up the narrow staircase. “Interesting,” his father remarked. “Interesting?” Kiernan scowled. “Has everyone gone mad?” The duke regarded him. “You are a fine one to talk. Abducting a woman?”

Kiernan sat in Phoebe’s chair. “I had no idea who she was.” His father’s mouth twisted down reprovingly. “Yes, yes,” Kiernan said impatiently, “she told me her name, but did she tell you the circumstances?” “I believe she explained things quite thoroughly,” Regan said. “Did she explain she was in Heddy’s coach?”

Regan and his father nodded. “Did she tell you she was flirting with Lord Beasley?” His father reached for the mug of ale sitting before him. “I would be careful about mentioning that, lad.” Kiernan stared at him. “A future wife doesn't care for being reminded of past flirtations.” ***** Phoebe took a sip of her

morning tea just as the Duke of Ashlund stepped from the staircase into the great hall. She took another slow sip in the seconds before he reached her side, then set the cup aside and rose from her seat. “Your Grace.” She dipped into an elegant curtsy. He grasped her hand, lifting her to her feet. “Lass, you needn't be so formal, you will soon call me father.” He smiled. “You may begin now,

if you wish.” "You're too kind," she said, then, “Might we speak privately?” “Of course.” He looked toward the kitchen. “Marinda,” he called to a girl passing by the door, “have tea sent up to my library.” Phoebe followed him up the stairs and down the long hallway to his library. He opened the door and motioned her in. She entered

and seated herself in the chair opposite his desk as he stepped behind his desk and lowered himself into his chair. Phoebe took a deep breath. "Your Grace, there is something about me you must know. When I was seventeen, I eloped with a man to Gretna Green." "Seventeen is young to marry," he said. "My uncle thought so,

too, and came after us. I will be blunt. He did not arrive in time." "In time?" Phoebe's cheeks warmed. "You must know what I mean." "I assume your reputation was tarnished?" he asked. She gave a nod. "With good reason. So you see, your son can't possibly marry a woman like me."

"A woman like you?" There was no mistaking the amusement in his voice, but before she could reply, he added, "No need to worry, Miss Wallington, no one will dare impugn your reputation once you and Kiernan are married." "Your Grace, a marquess simply does not marry a tarnished woman." He laughed. "I think a marquess marries anyone he

chooses." "I am certain your son won't be so blasé about the situation." "Miss Wallington, as Kiernan said last night, you have no choice." "But society—" "Society will likely make the Marquess and Marchioness of Ashlund their darlings," he said. "You—you can't be serious," she breathed.

"Society thrives on just such a story as yours," he replied. Panic swept through her. Did he really consider himself that far above society's reach? Was there nothing that would sway him, nothing he cared about? She understood all too well society's barbs. She enjoyed parties and received many invitations, but no man of rank would think of offering

for her and—she abruptly recalled the Duke's reaction yesterday when he thought she was related to the Wallington he knew. By heavens, the answer was right in front of her. Why hadn't she thought of it before? The duke might think his position put him above society's rules, but even a man of his rank couldn't flout society's view on a woman whose father was wanted for high treason.

Phoebe's stomach twisted as she said, “Your Grace, there is something much more serious than a green girl's mistakes." His brows rose in polite inquiry. "When I was a child, my father involved himself with the wrong sorts of men: dissidents, malcontents, murderers. In a word: traitors.” She suddenly realized the irony of the fact

that the lie that had enslaved her all her life was about to buy her freedom. “These traitors, along with my father, planned to assassinate a group of nobleman. All but my father were hanged. He escaped and hasn't been heard from since. Your Grace, he is wanted for high treason.” “High treason,” the duke repeated. “That is serious business." Hope surged through her.

"Indeed it is." "A very interesting tale,” he said. “Tale? It's the truth. The incident is known as the Cato Street Conspiracy.” His forehead wrinkled thoughtfully. “I seem to recall…the Spenceans, correct?” “Why, yes. I'm surprised you know of it.” He smiled, the light in his eyes indulgent. “My

generation does read the papers.” Phoebe flushed. “Forgive me. Of course, I-I didn't mean to imply otherwise—oh, surely you see, your son can't marry me?” “Why not?” said Kiernan MacGregor from the doorway. Phoebe cursed and, an instant later, when he stood at her side, she demanded, “What are you doing here?”

He lifted a brow just as his father had a moment ago and she experienced an urge to box his ears. “I live here, my dear.” He took her hand in his. She tried to yank free of his grasp, but his hold tightened and he bent over her hand, brushing his lips across her knuckles. Kiernan’s gaze captured hers. “Good morning, Phoebe,” he murmured.

His thumb brushed the spot he had kissed, then he released her. She snatched her hand back so quickly, her elbow banged the cushioned back of the chair. “Are you all right?” He glanced meaningfully at her elbow. “Fine, no thanks to you,” she muttered. “Your future wife was just telling me of her father's involvement with Arthur

Thistlewood,” the duke said. "You wouldn't remember, you were a boy then, but Thistlewood was found guilty of high treason and hanged in May of 1820." A tremor rocked Phoebe's stomach. The duke remembered the incident even to the details of Thistlewood's execution? "What did your father have to do with him?" Kiernan asked.

"He was accused of taking part in Thistlewood's plan to assassinate the Cabinet," she answered. "I see. So you know a bit more about assassinations than I first thought." She didn't miss the flicker of surprise on the duke's face, but had no time to consider it when she noticed—what, recognition? —in Kiernan's eyes. "Why didn't you say

something?" he asked. "If you recall, my lord, you thought I was Heddy." He cleared his throat in an obvious attempt to keep from laughing. "Indeed. Was your father also hanged?" "Good God, no," Phoebe blurted before catching herself. "What happened to him?" "He was never caught." "You told me your father

died when you were seven." She gave him a deprecating look. He would have the memory of an elephant. "What should I have said, my lord?" "Was he guilty of the accusations?" Kiernan asked. "I-I beg your pardon?" "Was he guilty?" Kiernan asked again. By heavens, she hadn't expected this question— hadn't expected any

questions. "I have accepted that he wasn't the man my mother thought he was." The truth. But she'd had enough of this. Phoebe looked at the duke. “Your Grace, yesterday you asked if I understood the gravity of my situation. I ask you the same. When you thought I was related to the Wallington you knew, you weren't pleased. My father is no better than the man you knew.”

"What are you talking about?" Kiernan said. "Never mind," the duke said, then regarded Phoebe. "The Wallington I knew was a deranged killer. Is that the case with your father?" "No, Your Grace, but—" “Excuse me, laird,” a woman entered the room. “The tea you asked for.” “On the sideboard,” he instructed. She hurried to the

sideboard and set the tray down, then began filling the cups. “I'll take care of the tea," Kiernan said. The girl cast a blushing glance in his direction, then hurried out the door. Kiernan crossed to the sideboard as Phoebe leaned toward the duke's desk. “As I was saying, Your Grace—” “How do you take your tea, Phoebe?” Kiernan asked.

She glanced at him, exasperated at the interruption. “Cream, two sugars.” Focusing again on the duke, she said, “Dukes do not marry their sons to the daughters of traitors.” "Even if the duke himself descends from a traitor?" he asked. "I beg your pardon?" Kiernan returned with the tea and set it on the desk in front of her. He leaned

against the desk, one leg brushing hers as he stretched them out before him. Warmth rippled through her and she froze at the realization that he was purposely enticing her. “We come from just that sort of stock,” he said. “What?” “About two hundred years ago, our ancestor Ryan MacGregor was a hunted traitor. Didn’t stop him from marrying into the Ashlund

line.” Kiernan’s eyes flashed the same devilishness she glimpsed the night he had burst into her carriage, and her stomach did a flip. What was wrong with her? “You'll fit in just fine,” he said. She gave a questioning look to the duke. “He's right.” Good Lord, had she stumbled into a family of

traitors? Did this explain Kiernan turning a blind eye to Alan Hay's assassination plot? Maybe it was in the blood. This cast a new light on the idea of the family business. “Has it occurred to either of you I don't want to marry?” she demanded. “Why not?” Kiernan asked. Phoebe hesitated, but knew she had no choice. “My

twenty-fifth birthday is a few months away. I come into a sizeable inheritance. The money will allow me to do as I please.” “So that is what you meant by my honor for your freedom,” Kiernan murmured. “You do understand? Well, perhaps not. My uncle is a wonderful man, but his wife isn't so wonderful, and her son—well, he's a

nuisance.” “What's he done?” Kiernan demanded, and Phoebe realized he thought Ty was trying to get into her bed. Damn him, she had no desire to explain Ty's love of gambling or her fear that Ty's mother would find a way to access Phoebe's inheritance. Phoebe planned to take possession of her money, then ensure that Lady Albery and

Ty didn't ruin her uncle. But first she had to escape this mess. “You misunderstand," she told Kiernan, "Ty—they simply aren't my family.” Kiernan squatted beside her, bringing his face level with hers. “I will be your family now.” “I have a life," she went on in a rush, "things I wish to do, things that don't include being at the beck and call of a

husband.” “As to whether or not those things include being at the beck and call of a husband,” the duke said, “I cannot say, but they do now include having a husband.” Phoebe stiffened. “Even you, Your Grace, cannot force me into marriage.” “It is done. The notice has been sent to the papers and a letter to your uncle.” She reeled. A message

already sent. How—when? How long to reach London with a message? Two days, if the messenger changed horses along the way? When had the messenger left? “You sent the message last night,” she said in a whisper to the duke. "When you allowed me to send a message to my uncle." Her pulse quickened. “Sweet God in heaven, what have you done?”

An acute silence fell upon the room, broken a moment later by Kiernan’s, “Phoebe, love.” She looked dumbly at him. “It wasn't my father’s doing.” She stared. “You?” He smiled slightly. “Not your damned honor?” The smile never wavered.

She couldn't believe it. A traitor with honor. Phoebe looked at the duke. “I wish to return home.” “We have time,” Kiernan said. “If we leave tomorrow —” “I wish to leave now,” she insisted, her gaze still fixed on his father. "All right," Kiernan said. "It's best if the announcement appears in the papers before

we arrive in London, so we will go to Ashlund first.” “I bloody well plan to cancel that announcement," Phoebe said. "And I have no intention of going anywhere with you.” “You can't go without me. In fact, we will ride with a large company of men in case your other admirer decides to waylay you again.” “What’s this?” the duke demanded.

“Did my future wife neglect to tell you of the men who tried to abduct her the same night I did?” The duke’s attention sharpened on Phoebe. “It was fortunate that I got there when I did," Kiernan said. "If not for me, God knows what would have happened." “You're being melodramatic,” she said. “Miss Wallington,” the

duke said in a stern voice that forced her attention to him. “Who is the other kidnapper?” The same man I encountered in the woods the night of the fire, she wondered? But said, "I haven’t the vaguest idea." Five minutes later, Phoebe begged Kiernan to give her time to think, and closed the library door on him and his father. She hurried to

her room to collect the three articles she had hidden there earlier that morning. First, the sgian dubh, which she'd taken from the great hall. Lifting her apron, she stuffed the sheathed dagger into the pocket of her skirt. Next, she retrieved the small derringer she had found in the duke’s library and pocketed the weapon with the dagger. Lastly, she picked up her reticule, which contained the

ruby ring her mother had given her before she died, along with her father’s letter. She stuffed the bag into her pocket and stood. Blood pounded in her ears in tandem with the rhythm of her thudding heart. She smoothed her skirts, until certain the bulge wasn't noticeable, then hastened from her room and down the stairs to the front entrance. Phoebe forced her pulse to

slow and her mind to quiet as she pushed open the door and stepped into the busy courtyard. She resisted the urge to glance at the upper level of the castle. If luck smiled, father and son would be in conference long enough for her to reach the village. If all went well, Kiernan wouldn't seek her out until she was long gone. Leaving on her own was a huge risk, but she couldn't see any other

choice. It was simply out of the question for her to arrive in London engaged to a man who she had already reported as a possible traitor to England. The letter she'd sent to Alistair was among those the duke thought was to her uncle, and would reach London with Kiernan's announcement for the papers. Keeping her gait casual, she started toward the gate. Halfway across the

compound, a high-pitched shriek caused her to jerk her head in the direction of the scream. Two children raced across the courtyard. Phoebe shoved her hands into her pockets and slowed her pace. The open gate was only a few feet away. Easy, she told herself. A man stepped from the battlements as she crossed the gate’s threshold. He glanced at her, but she kept her gaze straight ahead as if

not having seen him. She felt his gaze linger on her and her heart sank. But he didn’t call out, and a third of the way down the hill she couldn’t refrain from quickening her pace. Upon reaching the village, she spotted two women she'd met the night of the fire. They smiled. By heavens, they intended to stop her. Phoebe gave a cool nod and one woman flashed her a

disgusted look. Phoebe winced inwardly, but kept walking. The minutes it took to reach the stables ticked by with the sluggishness of a nightmare. She reached the stables and slipped inside. A quick inspection of the horses revealed two stallions, a mare, and two geldings. She backtracked three stalls to the first gelding, a nice looking chestnut. Phoebe ran a hand along

the strong back of the animal. “Your brethren in the keep’s stables are finer than you,” she cooed, “but pay them no mind. We have the element of surprise and will outrun them.” With a precision born of practice, she had the gelding saddled in ten minutes. Phoebe took a deep breath. “Ironic. Of all the villains I have had to escape, it is a duke insisting I marry his son that makes me quiver in my shoes.”

Leading the horse toward the rear door, she halted at the squeak of a wagon wheel halting at the front of the stable.

“There, there,” a raspy voice called. The creak of wood indicated the wagon’s driver was dismounting. She would have to make a run for it after all. Phoebe urged the horse the final paces to the rear door. She shoved the door open and, yanking her skirts

past the point of propriety, vaulted into the saddle. She dug her heels into the stallion’s belly just as light streamed into the stable from the other end. “What the—" Phoebe heard behind her as the beast lurched forward into the morning light. The ride through the lane was finished in seconds. She shot past the last cottage, and the young boy who stood on

its step staring after her. Phoebe didn't slow the gelding when the forest thinned, but kept him at a cantor as she glanced up at the early afternoon sun. Four hours had passed since she’d fled Brahan Seer and only one hour since she’d spotted three riders half a mile behind her. Her stomach churned. Despite the fact that she'd circled north before heading

south, they had picked up her trail. Phoebe urged her horse up the hill she had been riding alongside the past fifteen minutes. His neck muscles strained with the effort. “That’s it, laddie,” she said. “Let’s have a look.” They topped the summit and she brought the horse to a halt beneath the cover of trees. She surveyed the sparsely treed terrain directly

below, moving her gaze northward where the forest thickened. Her gaze snagged on shadowy movement within the trees and her pulse jumped. She couldn't discern the men's faces, but there could be no doubt who led the men: Kiernan MacGregor. Phoebe yanked the reins and whirled the horse around and back down the hill. “Easy,” Phoebe

instructed the gelding as he tried to veer west and deeper into the forest. She estimated the border to be about two hours south. Darkness had fallen and, though she would have preferred the cover of thicker foliage, she feared getting lost without the aid of the moon and stars which, thankfully, shined bright that night. The horse neighed loudly. “Quiet.” She pulled back

on the reins. He neighed again, this time, succeeding in veering off course. Phoebe distinguished the soft rush of water and realized the horse's intent. She relaxed her grip on the reins and the gelding quickly broke through the foliage and into a small clearing. Phoebe spotted a stream ten feet away, glistening in the moonlight. The horse trotted to the

water’s edge. She dismounted as he bent his neck and drank. She lowered herself to her knees and did the same. A rustle of leaves beyond the brook caused her to pause. For a moment, the faint sound remained lost in the babble of the brook, then slowly distinguished itself as the light tread of a horse. Had Kiernan MacGregor separated from his men? Or maybe this was one of his

men. Phoebe pulled her skirt calf-high and jumped noiselessly across the brook. She crept to the nearest tree and listened. The rider’s approach was still faint. She glanced at her horse. He grazed contentedly beside the brook. Phoebe stole deeper into the forest following the discerning horse's step. She stopped behind the trunk of a sprawling chestnut tree. The

moon sliced through the branches in thick stabs of light and she was rewarded with the sight of a rider picking his way through the trees. This short, stocky man was not Kiernan MacGregor. Two men on horseback materialized from the shadows of a large oak beyond the rider. Phoebe started, then her heart skipped a beat. None of the men wore kilts, but

instead, wore the loose fitting trousers and badly cut woolen coats worn by the lower class English. “Ain’t but three o’ ‘em,” the man she had followed said in rough English accents. “You sure?” another demanded with authority. “I can count," the first retorted. A twig snapped in the darkness beyond the men. “Bob,” called the one

Phoebe believed to be the leader. “Aye, Zachariah.” A large man astride a massive horse entered the circle of men. “Where’s Cary and John?” Zachariah demanded. Bob jerked his head in the direction he’d come as two more men became visible behind him. Zachariah looked back at the first man. “You and Frank

hide in the trees near Borthwick bridge. When they cross, fire a shot so that we know they’re there, then block their rear.” Zachariah looked at the other men. “You four get down below the bridge. If they try to jump, give them a taste of your pistol. But whatever you do, aim for the sky. Kill the wrong man and we end up with nothing.” Phoebe's blood went

cold. The 'wrong man' Zachariah referred to could be none other than Kiernan MacGregor, the Marquess of Ashlund, son of a wealthy duke. He would bring a fine ransom. “What about our employer?” “What about him?” Zachariah said. Yes, Phoebe wondered, what about him? “Don’t strike me as the

type to like being doublecrossed.” “He doesn’t run this band,” Zachariah growled. “I do.” “What if he comes looking for us?” another asked. “It won’t matter, we’ll be long gone. You men want to keep working this drudge of a country?” Grunts of agreement went around.

“Get going, then,” Zachariah commanded. The men turned their horses east and Phoebe knew they were headed for the valley she had left half an hour ago. She waited until they disappeared, then hurried back to her horse. She mounted, then urged him back through the holly bushes and down the mountainside toward the valley. Fifteen minutes later, the terrain

leveled out and she snapped the reins against the gelding’s rear. He shot forward. “Heddy,” Phoebe muttered as she hunkered down, “I'll choke every last breath from you when I return home. As for you, Ashlund, I'll shoot you myself if these brigands don’t do it for me.”

Chapter Eight

The wide valley became visible beyond the thinning trees and Phoebe brought her horse to a standstill on the hill’s edge. The moon illuminated a grass-covered basin strewn with rocks and ground-hugging brush. Further scrutiny was halted by the discovery of riders

entering the long valley at a gallop from the north. She squinted at the tall figure in the lead. A cloak lashed behind him in the wind. Kiernan MacGregor. She looked south where the valley narrowed and spotted the bridge where Zachariah and his men waited. She pulled the derringer from her pocket and kicked her horse’s ribs. He neighed and lunged ahead. Phoebe leaned into him as he

sped down the hill. The chill of the autumn night penetrated the sleeves of her dress. She tucked her head down and bent closer to the horse's neck. Moments later, the ground leveled and they shot from the trees. Directly ahead, Kiernan and his men were midway into the valley. Shouts went up from his party. Kiernan whipped his horse around on an intercept

course. The two men with him followed. In less than a minute, they were within shouting distance. “You’re riding into a trap!” Phoebe yelled. “There are brigands waiting for you at the bridge.” Kiernan glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the bridge, then faced her. “Two men are acting as lookout,” Phoebe brought her horse up short as Kiernan and

his men did the same beside her. “They mean to block your retreat,” she panted. “Four men are below the bridge and another waits on the other side.” “What?” Kiernan demanded. Then, before she could respond, “Damnation, woman, are you trying to catch your death?” He whipped off his plaid cloak and edged his horse closer. Her gelding shied, but

before she could pull back on the reins, Kiernan grabbed the beast’s bridle and stilled him. “MacGregor!” one of his men cried as he threw the cloak around her shoulders. Kiernan whirled his horse in unison with shouts that abruptly emanated from the opposite side of the valley. Phoebe jerked her attention toward the shouts and saw two riders emerge from trees near the bridge.

“They spotted us,” she said. "There are six of them." "How do you know that?" Kiernan demanded. "Never mind. When this is finished I'll beat it out of you." He looked at his men. "Take care of them." He motioned toward the approaching brigands and the men started toward them. He brought his gaze back to bear on Phoebe. “Get to the other side of the valley and stay

inside the trees.” He snapped the reins across his steed’s rump. The horse leapt into action. “Ashlund!” she shouted. “They intend to kidnap and ransom you.” “Do as I say or I'll beat you here and now,” he called over his shoulder. A shot rang out. Phoebe cut her gaze to the approaching brigands who aimed a pistol at the

MacGregor men. Her pounding heart skipped a beat. The ball had missed its mark and the would-be kidnappers still raced toward the MacGregor men. She looked at the derringer. Why hadn’t the duke had anything better in his library? Shooting the derringer at a target more than fifteen feet away was like spitting. She clasped the cloak about her throat, then

spurred her horse back the way she’d come. Another gunshot pierced the night air. She glanced back and saw Kiernan holding his weapon level, and a riderless horse charging toward him. The fallen man’s comrade whirled and raced back toward the bridge. Phoebe urged her horse into the forest, then reined south toward the river. Beyond the trees, she glimpsed the man

who had fled. He reached the bridge and raced across. Indistinguishable shouts reached her when Kiernan and his men disappeared down the riverbank left of the bridge. Minutes later, Phoebe reached the bank. She pulled her horse up short and dismounted. She discarded Kiernan’s cloak, then slid down the riverbank to river's edge. The bridge lay a

hundred feet away. Waist high bushes grew in sporadic patches along the bank. The slow moving water whispered in a gentle flow downstream. She gave a final glance around the deserted riverbank, then scurried between the bushes toward the bridge. Thirty feet from the bridge, something rustled in the foliage within its shadows, and Phoebe halted behind a bush. Her heart

jumped into her throat when a figure emerged from the shadows and started up the bank. She aimed the derringer, then hesitated. He was too far away to hit with any accuracy, and his back was to her. Her stomach took a sickening turn. She'd never shot a man, and she wasn't about to start by shooting him in the back. Crouching, she headed for the next bush.

Another shot discharged. The man spun toward her before she reached cover and she stopped. Their gazes locked, then he stepped toward her and she fired. He jerked to his right and fell. Her heart jumped into her throat. Thank God, the bullet hit his shoulder, as planned. She'd feared the gun would pull even harder to the left than anticipated, and she would miss him altogether.

Phoebe rose on shaky legs, but forced herself to hurry forward. Another brigand appeared from beneath the bridge and she halted. His glance flicked from his fallen comrade to her—then the derringer she still gripped. He leveled the double barrel revolver he held. Phoebe dove behind the bush an instant before he fired. She looked up, expecting to see his pistol

aimed at her again, but he wasn’t there. A strong hand clamped onto her arm and yanked her upright. Her captor began dragging her up the bank and Phoebe fumbled for the sgian dubh in her pocket. The dagger bounced off her thigh with the long strides he forced her to take. She caught sight of two revolvers stuffed into his waistband, then gave a tiny cry upon recognizing

the MacGregor plaide of his kilt. Phoebe looked up and searched his face, but didn't recognize him. “Who—" She tripped as they crested the bank. He grabbed her around the waist and yanked her off the ground. “Barbarian,” she yelped, and elbowed him in the ribs. He grunted. At the sound of more gunfire, Phoebe glanced back, but saw

nothing as he hauled her up the bank. They entered the trees and she twisted to face her captor. “You would do better to help Lord Ashlund," she said. "Those ruffians will shoot his companions and take him.” “You have a fine opinion of MacGregor men,” he replied in a placid voice that didn’t hide the sarcasm. Phoebe jammed her derringer into his side.

“Release me and go help the others.” “You used your one shot on that fellow.” “Useless piece of iron.” She tossed the weapon aside. Her horse came into view a few feet ahead, alongside a stallion. Her captor set her on her feet, but kept hold of her arm, while directing her toward the horses. “They need your help.” she burst out.

“I can't take you near the fighting, and I canna’ leave you alone. MacGregor will have my head.” “Lord Ashlund will understand.” “Not him. His father.” They reached the horses. Phoebe spied a branch the size of her arm near the stallion’s feet. “What will his father say when you return with me and his son’s ransom demand

follows?” she demanded. More gunfire echoed through the trees and he cast a glance in the direction of the sound. He shook his head. “I must do as the MacGregor ordered.” He reached for her horse’s reins. Heart pounding, Phoebe bent and grabbed the branch. Sorry about this, lad. Her stomach tensed as she shot to her feet, swinging the branch against the back of his head.

He fell to the ground with a groan. She dropped the branch and grabbed a revolver from his waistband. He groaned again. “You’ll live.” Her stomach relaxed a fraction and she headed for the river. Upon reaching the forest’s edge, Phoebe once again crept down the riverbank and ducked behind the first bush she reached. She surveyed the quiet

riverbank. Was Lord Ashlund on this side of the river or had he crossed over? The moonlight dimmed behind filmy clouds. She scurried from bush to bush toward the water. Nearer the river, the bushes thinned, then stopped altogether. She bent low and darted from the cover of the last bush. Gunfire broke the silence and she dropped to the ground fifteen feet from the water’s edge. Her knee

smashed against a small rock. She winced, biting back a cry of pain. “Give it up, Your Lordship,” Zachariah's call drifted across the river. “You’re outnumbered. We won’t hurt you, I swear.” Silence met his demand. “You can’t escape. I have men guarding your retreat.” Still no answer. “Come, now. You’re only going to get you and

your men killed.” A soft splash in the water jerked Phoebe's attention sideways. “If you come out now, I promise to release everyone except you,” Zachariah shouted. A figure rose from the river near her. He turned slightly and the silhouette of the revolver he held above the water became visible. She realized the giant was the

man Zachariah had called Bob. Phoebe rose to her knees and aimed her revolver as Bob stepped up onto shore and started toward the bridge. “Not another step, Bob,” she said in a whisper, “or I’ll blast a hole in you.” He halted. Her thudding heart skipped a beat. “Do we have an agreement?” Zachariah called. “Drop the weapon,”

Phoebe ordered. Bob remained motionless. She drew back on the hammer. The chamber clicked over with an audible grate. “Throw down the weapon,” she ordered again. He looked over his shoulder. His gaze latched first onto the weapon, then slid up to her shadowed face. He whirled and she fired. He staggered back with the force

of the ball that hit his belly. He looked down at the spreading stain, then at her. “Ye shot me.” Her stomach turned. Two men in one night. And this one, she guessed, wouldn't live. He fell to his knees, hitting the ground with a choked groan. “Done in by a woman.” He raised his weapon. Phoebe froze. The man

she had killed was about to kill her. Another shot fired. She jumped as Bob fell face forward onto the ground. Something rustled behind her and she twisted, losing her balance and hitting the ground on her backside. A figure emerged from behind a bush and she barely stifled a scream upon recognizing the MacGregor man she'd left unconscious. He hurried forward. She

stared dumbly at him as he halted beside her and dropped to his knees. She allowed him to disengage the revolver from her grasp and help her kneel. Revolver at ready, he grasped her arm. “Can you crawl?” he asked. She nodded and started on all fours alongside him toward the bridge. “Now,” came Zachariah’s voice again, “you

see what happens? You’re forcing me to kill your men. Who did we kill, Your Lordship?” Phoebe yelled, “Bob didn’t kill anyone, Zachariah. He is dead.” An instant of silence passed. “What?” Zachariah demanded. “Come along.” Her companion urged her toward the bridge.

“That’s right, Zachariah,” she shouted. “Bob is dead.” “Who is that?” he shouted back. There was a scuffle, muffled voices, then the sound of footsteps running through the trees—running away, Phoebe noted. “Come back, you cowards,” Zachariah called. A moment later, Phoebe and her companion reached

the bridge, and he called out softly, “MacGregor.” A man’s voice answered a few feet away, beyond the bushes. “Donald?” “Aye,” he replied. A man showed himself and waved them forward. Donald got to his feet, pulling Phoebe with him. He hurried her past him and she pushed through several bushes, snagging her skirt on brambles. Donald yanked the

skirt free and pushed her forward. They broke through the bushes where three men stood, and she stopped short at seeing Kiernan sitting on the ground, back against a large rock as he loaded a revolver. “Phoebe Wallington,” he said without looking up, “when this affair is finished, I do swear to beat you.” There was a gritty edge to his voice Phoebe didn't

like. “Indeed, my lord? I was thinking I would shoot you.” Her gaze caught on the tartan wrapped around the uppermost part of his left thigh. “Good God, what have you done?” She hurried forward and dropped to her knees at his side. A splinter of pain shot up her leg. She winced, but ignored the discomfort and touched the tartan around his leg. She pursed her lips upon

recognizing the moist stickiness of blood and pressed down on the wound. “Phoebe,” he said in a raspy voice. She shot him a quelling look. “You were the one person who was not supposed to get shot.” “Save your reprimands for the wedding night,” Kiernan said with a grunt. “Don’t be a fool.” She pressed gingerly on his leg.

“Madam,” he growled, “if you would kindly cease your ministrations until we are finished with—" Phoebe pressed harder. “By God,” he cursed. “Hush, or you'll have no business to attend to at all.” She looked at his men. “How is that, of the four of you, he is the one shot?” “It was the sniper.” One of the men pointed at the bridge.

She gave a disgusted snort, then eyed Kiernan critically. “Hurts like the devil, I imagine.” He scowled. “A mere flesh wound. See to that fool threatening us," he ordered, and two of his men slinked off into the darkness as he returned his attention to sifting the powder into the muzzle of his weapon. “From the looks of that fabric, you’ve lost a fair

amount of blood.” Phoebe touched his damp forehead. “You're flushed.” She rose and turned from the men, slipped off a cotton petticoat, then turned back and thrust the petticoat into Donald’s grasp. “Tear this into one long bandage.” “I suppose you'll insist on a new petticoat,” Kiernan said as the sound of fabric ripping filled the quiet air. A large portion of the powder

he had been trying to force into the barrel of his revolver missed its intended mark and ended up in a heap on his lap. “Damnation,” he cursed. Phoebe snatched the weapon from him. “What the devil—give me that, woman.” She dodged his swipe for the weapon. “Why wasn't I able to get my hands on this belt pistol when I needed it?” “What’s that you say?”

Kiernan made another grab for the pistol. “Be patient,” she ordered. Phoebe pointed the barrel upward and pulled back the hammer to the half cock position. Another rip of her petticoat rent the air. “Give me the powder.” Instead of waiting for him to comply, she grabbed the horn from his hand. She measured powder into the chamber. “Keep pressure on that

wound,” she told Kiernan. “I don’t like the way it's bleeding. Where is Mather? He would have kept you out of trouble.” Kiernan shifted the tartan back onto the wound and pressed gently. “I gave him leave to visit family before I saw you this morning—and he didn’t succeed in keeping me out of trouble the night I met you. Who taught you to load a pistol?” He retrieved a

ball from the pouch lying beside him and offered it to her. “I told you, my uncle is an amateur collector.” Phoebe took the ball and placed it on the face of the cylinder. Using the loading lever, she depressed the ball into the cylinder, watching as a small ring of lead was shaved off the ball in the process. “Excellent.” She reached

for more powder and began loading another chamber. A moment later a shot rang out from across the river. “I pray that was a MacGregor weapon.” Phoebe pressed the last ball into the chamber and gave the weapon a final examination. Satisfied, she handed it back to Kiernan, then turned to Donald. “Finished ripping that petticoat, I see.”

“Aye.” He handed the mass of fabric to her. Phoebe set the bandage on Kiernan’s lap, then reached beneath her apron and retrieved the sgian dubh from her pocket. “What the devil?" he muttered. “Where is the closest doctor?” she asked as she unwound the tartan from his leg. “Edinburgh is three hours

away,” Donald answered. Phoebe tossed aside the tartan. “Nothing closer?” She grabbed Kiernan’s breeches at the right thigh, and positioned the dagger over the cloth. “Phoebe,” he said, “I don't care for the way you are holding that knife." She stuck the point of the dagger into his pants. “Phoebe!” He twitched. She gave an exasperated

sigh. "Lie still, and I won't cut you." She slit the fabric to his knee, then scooted down and finished cutting the pant leg. “Has anyone got any liquor?” Both men shook their heads. "Use the powder," Kiernan said. “That'll do.” She set the dagger on the ground and grabbed the horn. Kiernan had shut his eyes. “What of English soil, Donald?” She

sprinkled the powder on the wound. “What?” he asked. “A doctor,” she said. “Where is the nearest doctor in England?” “There is a respectable village an hour away,” he answered. “Come here,” Phoebe ordered. Donald knelt beside her. “Hold his leg up as I wrap the bandage.”

He did as instructed and she reached beneath Kiernan’s leg and handed the bandage from one hand to the other, keeping the fabric taut with each pass. “Phoebe,” Kiernan said, his voice sleepy, “be gentle, lass.” She paused, concerned that she had applied too much pressure to the wound. “I'm wounded, not dead,” he said.

Phoebe frowned, then noticed the bulge in his pants a couple of inches from her hand. “By heavens, shall I have Donald finish the job?” “No,” Kiernan’s voice held a trace of amusement. “I shouldn't enjoy it half as much.” She continued wrapping his leg. "Zachariah has an employer who it seems has an interest in you." "What are you talking

about?" "I overheard them in the forest," she said. "We will speak about the fact you were in the forest at length when I am in better condition to deal with you," he said. "We are speaking now." She tugged the bandage tight. "Don't be obtuse, Phoebe." She ignored him. "Reference was made to an

employer who wouldn't like being double-crossed. Who is after you, my lord?" Kiernan shrugged. "Not everyone understands how delightful I am." "So it seems." She ran her hand along the makeshift bandage, satisfied it was the best she could do, then looked at Donald. “He has lost a substantial amount of blood.” “Aye,” he agreed.

“Don't talk about me as if I'm not here,” Kiernan complained in a whisper. “If we don't hurry, you are likely not to be with us much longer.” “I would think that would solve your problem, Miss Wallington,” he replied. “Had I known you would be fool enough to get yourself shot, I wouldn’t have bothered to come back and warn you.”

Kiernan grasped her hand, his grip still quite strong, she noticed with relief. “Why did you turn back?” Phoebe shook him off. “You owe me for this, Ashlund. I deduced that it would be easier getting you to repay this debt my way, than trying to fight you—and your father.” He took a slow breath. “It doesn't signify. Neither

my father nor your uncle would allow that, even if I agreed. Which—" he broke off, glancing at his two men, who had reappeared "—I do not.” Phoebe looked at Donald. “Where are our horses?” “I last saw them when you hit me,” he said. “Had you done as I told you and helped Lord Ashlund, I wouldn't have had

to brain you. If luck is with us, they're still there. Please retrieve them.” If luck were with her, she would reach London before the announcement reached the papers—and before Kiernan MacGregor had a chance to recuperate. God willing, he did recuperate. A little over an hour later, they reached the inn. Donald was off his mount and

at Kiernan's horse as Phoebe stepped to the ground. Kiernan had managed to stay in the saddle, but his eyes were closed and he had grown pale. Aaron had dismounted and reached Kiernan as Donald helped him from the saddle. Each man grasped one of his arms and slung it over a shoulder, then started toward the inn. Phoebe hurried ahead of them as the remaining two

MacGregor men pulled the injured brigand from his horse. The man she had shot looked worse than Kiernan, but she prayed he would live. As suspected, Bob hadn't lived. If they were fortunate, this man would name his employer. Phoebe held the door of the inn as Donald and Aaron crossed the threshold with Kiernan between them. She frowned when Kiernan’s head

lolled to one side. Blood had soaked the white cotton of his makeshift bandage, as well as the pant leg that flapped about his calf. A wave of panic swept through her. She had never dealt with a wound that bled so much. Perhaps she had bandaged it improperly. She hurried past them into the wide foyer. A long hallway lay straight ahead and to her right was the drawing room. She entered

and a young, brown haired serving girl and the two guests seated at a corner table looked up. “We need three rooms,” Phoebe said, “and send for a doctor immediately.” The girl hurried past her, eyes widening when Donald and Aaron entered with Kiernan. “Put Lord Ashlund in that chair.” Phoebe pointed to a chair positioned in front of

the fireplace. The men complied and she bent and felt Kiernan’s forehead. He had developed a fever. She straightened when a tall man entered the room. “You are the proprietor, sir?” she inquired. “I am,” he replied. “What’s all this?” Phoebe followed the man’s gaze to Donald and Aaron. Their kilts, she realized, held his attention

and not the bleeding man. “This is Lord Ashlund.” She motioned toward Kiernan. “We were set upon by highwayman, and His Lordship was shot.” “Lord Ashlund?” came a nasally feminine voice from behind the man. The proprietor stepped aside, allowing a short, plump woman to enter. She gasped as her gaze fell upon Kiernan. “The man’s indecent.” She

jerked her attention to Phoebe. “How dare you bring a half dressed man here. This here’s a respectable establishment.” “Don’t be a fool,” Phoebe snapped. “He's wounded, and he's the Marquess of Ashlund.” “A Scot,” the woman said with derision, then added with a sweep of her gaze across Phoebe, “And you’re no more a fine lady than

Mildred down the lane.” Phoebe faced the proprietor. “I would advise you, sir, to take quick action. His father is the Duke of Ashlund.” “Another Scot,” the woman repeated with outrage. “You do not wish this duke’s son to die on your carpet,” Phoebe said without taking her eyes off the proprietor.

“Sally,” he called. The serving girl rushed into the room. “Ready the room at the end of the hall.” “Now, Roger,” the plump woman began. “Be quiet,” he hissed. “Send for a doctor immediately,” Phoebe said. “Send Jack for the doctor,” he said, and Sally dashed through the doorway. “There is another man in your stables who must be

attended to as well,” Phoebe said, then turned. “Donald, see His Lordship to his room.” Donald and Aaron lifted Kiernan by his armpits. “I, too, will need a room,” Phoebe added. “We ain’t got no more rooms,” the proprietor’s wife snapped. “Roger.” Kiernan’s low voice quieted the room. Donald and Aaron halted as

he said, “The lady is my future wife. You will see to her comfort?” “Aye, my lord, I will,” the proprietor said with a quick bow. “My wife isn't always aware of the rooms we have available. Rest assured your lady will be looked after.” Kiernan closed his eyes and Phoebe prayed no more would be heard from him that night.

Phoebe watched Dr. Wilcox place a bottle of laudanum on Kiernan’s nightstand before he turned to her. “He lost a great deal of blood,” the doctor said. Phoebe agreed. It showed in the paleness of his skin. The doctor had made short work of extracting the ball from his leg. Now, an hour later, he rested, and they

waited. “The fever concerns me,” the doctor went on. “If it breaks, he'll do well. He's a healthy lad, the chances are in his favor. You did a fine job on the bandage. Chances are it saved his life. Administer the laudanum if he wakes. As it is, he should sleep through the night." "His lordship will see to the bill in the morning," Phoebe said. "You will see to

the other man, as well?" "I will." He rose and she escorted him to the door. "Thank you for coming." The doctor nodded. “I'll look in on him in the morning." She opened the door and said again, "Thank you,” then closed the door behind him. “So,” she faced Kiernan, “the tables are turned. It is I who must attend to you.”

Phoebe crossed to the bed and placed a hand on his forehead. He was still hot to the touch. In sleep, Kiernan MacGregor's features softened, but the masculine angles remained. His mouth…his mouth she remembered with more clarity than she cared to admit. She had yet to forget the damn kiss, and that was the one thing she should forget.

Her mother’s ruby ring, her father’s age-yellowed letter, and Dr. Connor’s binaural stethoscope danced around Phoebe’s head. She jumped, desperate to snatch each one as they dipped closer, but every time she caught one, they melted in her fingers. From the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the only sentence in her father's letter that was legible:

I give my blessing to this marriage. She didn't remember that line in his letter. How had her father known about Kiernan MacGregor? The stethoscope made a sudden dive, then snapped back, causing the end to crack like a whip and hit her head. She cried out in pain and the letter followed, lashing across her face. She swatted viciously, ripping the corner. She wadded the

fragment of paper and flung it after its whole. The three objects turned in unison, forming a line as if for a coordinated attack, then lunged for her—Phoebe awoke with a start. At sight of Kiernan MacGregor asleep in bed, she leapt to her feet. She looked wildly about for her three foes, but saw nothing flying about in the soft glow of the fire-lit room. She touched her head

where the stethoscope had hit her, but found no soreness. A dream. Phoebe collapsed back into the chair, the beating of her heart so loud she wondered how her patient could sleep through the noise. Even with the phantoms gone, fear gripped her. She considered lighting a lamp, b